New Mexico waste incident settlements finalized

25 January 2016

Settlement agreements worth $74 million have been finalized by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and the US Department of Energy (DOE) and its contractors, resolving claims related to incidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in 2014. Operations are now expected to restart at WIPP in December 2016.

NMED made the claims following the February 2014 incidents at WIPP in Carlsbad and associated activities at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Operations to dispose of military-origin transuranic (TRU) waste at WIPP were suspended following the detection of radiological contamination that month, days after an engine fire involving an underground vehicle. The source of the contamination was later found to be a ruptured waste drum, which originated from LANL.

In December 2014, NMED issued the DOE with fines totalling more than $54 million for violations at both WIPP and LANL relating to the DOE's handling of TRU waste that contributed to both the incidents. An initial settlement agreement was signed in April 2015. The final settlement signed on 22 January by NMED, DOE, Los Alamos National Security and WIPP operator Nuclear Waste Partnership resolves those claims against the DOE and its contractors.

The agreements set out the funding and scheduling for environmental projects to improve roads, water infrastructure and emergency response infrastructure in the Carlsbad and Los Alamos communities and include: $34 million for repairs to roads used for the transportation of TRU waste to WIPP; $4 million to construct and equip an DOE-operated offsite emergency operations centre near WIPP; $1 million to fund training for local emergency responders; up to $12 million to improve DOE-owned transport routes at LANL used to ship TRU waste to WIPP; $10 million to update potable water systems at LANL; $7.5 million to design and install engineering structures around LANL to slow storm-water flow and improve water quality; $2.5 million for increased storm water runoff sampling and monitoring in and around LANL; and $3 million for external triennial compliance reviews of environmental regulatory compliance and operations at WIPP and LANL.

The agreements also require the DOE and its contractors to implement the necessary corrective actions at both facilities in order to ensure "safe and sustainable continued operations".

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez said that LANL and WIPP were "critical assets" at national, state and community level. "The funds New Mexico will receive through this agreement will help ensure the future safety and success of these facilities, the people who work in them and their local communities," she said.

US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said that the investments would enhance the DOE's operations at the two sites. "We are pleased to resolve the Administrative Compliance Orders so that we can continue to focus full attention on resuming and improving our waste management operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant," he said.

December restart

Waste emplacement operations at WIPP are now scheduled to resume in December this year, under a new integrated performance management baseline for WIPP recovery activities approved by the DOE's Carlsbad Field Office on 21 January.

WIPP is the USA's only repository for the disposal of TRU waste - clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements - from the US military program. The waste is sealed in containers and placed in panels carved out of an underground rock salt formation. WIPP has not been receiving wastes since the 2014 incident, although some TRU wastes are being temporarily stored at Waste Control Specialists' facility in Andrews County, Texas, until operations at WIPP resume.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News