WIPP restart date put back

03 August 2015

A new target date is to be set for the resumption of waste emplacement operations at the USA's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) transuranic (TRU) waste disposal facility after the Department of Energy (DOE) determined that the previously announced target of March 2016 is no longer viable.

The New Mexico facility, where military-origin TRU wastes are disposed of 655 metres underground in rooms mined out of an ancient salt formation, has been out of action since a February 2014 incident when a ruptured waste barrel resulted in a release of radioactivity. The release was the second incident to affect WIPP in the same month, occurring only a week after a truck had caught fire in the underground facility.

A recovery plan announced in October 2014 foresaw the resumption of waste emplacement in the first quarter of 2016. However, the DOE says that unanticipated issues encountered over recent months, including the identification of further activities which must be added to the project schedule, mean that the target date will not be reached.

Key issues impacting the schedule include the need to address the findings and recommendations from the two boards set up by the DOE to investigate the incidents, the implementation of more rigorous site-specific safety analysis standards, and the resolution of problems with the contractor's oversight of the procurement and quality assurance processes for the manufacture and delivery of an interim ventilation system.

DOE's acting Carlsbad Field Office manager Dana Bryson said that while it was disappointing to miss the original target date for beginning waste emplacement, "substantial progress" had been made at the site including mine stabilization, radiological risk mitigation and the closure of panel 6 and panel 7 room 7, where the rupture took place.

The DOE expects to have a revised cost and schedule plan ready in the autumn. "The Department is committed to resuming operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant as soon as it is safe to do so," Bryson said.

WIPP has been in operation since 1999 and is the USA's only repository for the disposal of TRU waste from the US military program. The waste - clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements - is sealed in containers and placed in panels carved out of the underground rock salt formation.

The February 2014 barrel rupture was caused by a chemical reaction between nitrate salts in the waste with an absorbent materialĀ - cat litterĀ - used to stabilize liquids in the container. The source of the release was traced to a single waste drum, which originated from the Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL). Earlier this year a DOE technical report confirmed that the issue was caused by the use of a wheat-based absorbent material in the drum instead of the usual cat litter.

In December 2014, New Mexico environmental regulators fined the DOE and LANL more than $54 million for violations that contributed to the February 2014 incidents.

WIPP is operated by Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News