Settlement agreed for WIPP incidents

01 May 2015

Some $73 million will be spent on "mutually beneficial and critical projects" in New Mexico by the US Department of Energy (DOE) and its contractors under an agreement reached with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). The investments will be in lieu of proposed fines for two incidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in February 2014.

Operations to dispose of military-origin transuranic (TRU) waste at WIPP were suspended following the detection of radiological contamination in February 2014, days after an engine fire involving an underground vehicle. In December, NMED issued the DOE with fines totalling more than $54 million for violations at both WIPP and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) relating to DOE's handling of TRU waste that contributed to both the incidents.

A settlement agreement was signed yesterday under which the DOE will spend around $73 million on projects that will result in safer roads, improved water structure and enhanced emergency responses in New Mexico. The agreement was signed by NMED, DOE and its contractors Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) and Los Alamos National Security LLC.

The agreement calls for the DOE to provide $34 million to fund necessary repairs to roads in south-eastern New Mexico used for the transportation of TRU waste to WIPP. It will also fund up to $12 million of improvements to transportation routes in and around Los Alamos. DOE will also provide $10 million to upgrade critical water infrastructure in and around Los Alamos. In addition, DOE also pay $9.5 million to build engineering structures and improve monitoring around LANL to better manage storm water flows.

Under the agreement, DOE will also provide $5 million to enhance training and capabilities of local emergency responders, as well as the construction of an offsite emergency operations centre near WIPP. The DOE is also to pay $2.75 million for independent, external triennial reviews of environmental regulatory compliance and operations at LANL and WIPP.

The DOE said the new agreement resolves the consent orders issued by NMED in December, as well as any other potential DOE and DOE-contractor liabilities to New Mexico arising out of the two incidents at WIPP.

Energy secretary Ernest Moniz said, "The Department of Energy and the State of New Mexico have worked together to identify projects at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and the Los Alamos National Laboratory that are mutually beneficial and do not detract from cleanup at these sites."

He added, "I am pleased that were are able to find a solution that allow the Department to focus on resuming operations at WIPP and improving our waste management operations, while providing benefit to the environment and to local communities in New Mexico."

Governor of New Mexico Susana Martinez said, "The funds we will receive through the agreement will be used to continue ensuring the safety and success of these important facilities, the people who work there, and their local communities. I commend the Department of Energy for taking responsibility, and we look forward to continuing to work with the federal government to ensure the safety and success of LANL and WIPP."

WIPP, located 26 miles (42km) from Carlsbad, is owned by the DOE and operated by NWP. It disposes of military-origin TRU wastes 655 meters underground in rooms mined out of an ancient salt formation. The waste itself is a by-product of nuclear weapons research and production, including facility dismantling operations and site cleanup, and typically comprises tools, gloves, clothing and other items contaminated with radioactive elements. TRU waste disposal operations began at WIPP in 1999.

The DOE expects operations at WIPP to restart in 2016.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News