Investigators enter WIPP

03 April 2014

Workers have re-entered the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico for the first time since a radiological event occurred there in mid-February. Future teams will travel deeper into the facility towards the suspected source of the release.

The WIPP plant is owned by the US Department of Energy (DoE) and operated by Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC. The facility disposes of transuranic waste packages from the US military in an underground salt formation. The waste is placed in panels within the facility, each divided into seven rooms. An underground monitor detected airborne radiation within the plant on 14 February.

Waste sent to Texas

LANL TRU at WCS 250 (DoE)

The first shipment of transuranic (TRU) waste from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has arrived at the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) facility in Andrews County, Texas.

LANL has committed to remove all above-ground TRU waste from its site in New Mexico by June. In order to help LANL meet its commitment, WIPP operator Nuclear Waste Partnership signed a contract with WCS for the temporary storage of the remaining waste until operations resume at WIPP.

TRU is waste containing man-made elements that are heavier than uranium, such as plutonium. The waste consists of such things as contaminated clothing, tools and other work equipment, rags, soil and debris.

Yesterday, two eight-person teams entered the underground facility for the first time since the incident. The first team entered the facility using the salt handling shaft elevator, descending 665 metres underground. The team did not detect any airborne contamination. The second team then also entered the facility.

Whilst in WIPP, the workers surveyed conditions from the salt shaft station to the air intake shaft station to establish two usable exit locations - a requirement for future underground work. They also established communications with the above-ground central monitoring room using a mine pager and a landline telephone.

The workers also installed an additional continuous air monitor near the salt shaft station. In addition, they established an underground base of operations for future entries into the mine, as well as setting up a clean area for team members to change into or remove protective suits and equipment as they enter or leave the facility.

The DoE said that the workers' efforts "were a first step toward future entries that will expand the clean base of operations and allow workers to travel further into the mine to identify the suspected source of the radiological release."

Within the next few days, another team of workers will continue to survey conditions in the mine while expanding the clean base of operations toward the suspected release location, room 7 of panel 7. The first waste had reportedly only recently been placed within this area.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News