Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 34 No. 28
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July 14, 2023

Long-stranded TRU waste at WCS could finally head to WIPP in 2026

By Wayne Barber

After being stuck at a commercial site in West Texas since 2014, 74 containers of problematic Los Alamos National Laboratory transuranic waste should be shipped to the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., by December 2026.

That timeline, subject to successful preparation of the solid waste boxes and regulatory approval by state and federal agencies, was outlined in a June 29 letter to the Texas attorney general’s office from the DOE Office of Environmental Management. 

A copy of the letter was viewed by Exchange Monitor. DOE promised to give Texas a detailed plan by the end of June. The boxes are the last of about 300 rerouted to the commercial disposal site from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) either because of worries that they might be chemically unstable or because WIPP was closed for about three years due to an underground radiation leak. 

“Based on technical analysis, the waste in its current state would not be susceptible to self-ignition at standard temperature and pressure conditions, and we believe there is a viable path to transport and dispose of the TRU [transuranic]waste outside of Texas,” Douglas Tonkay, DOE’s acting deputy assistant secretary for waste and materials management, said in the letter to Phillip Ledbetter, the managing lawyer for the Texas attorney general’s enforcement office.

As an added precaution, all but three of the remaining standard waste boxes would be “overpacked” with hollow glass beads sometime after September, when personnel will start moving them to a different section of the Waste Control Specialists site.

The beads should act as an insulating layer that protects the radioactive waste inside the boxes from an external fire: the thing likeliest to cause the contents of the boxes to explosively combust, according to a report published by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2020.

The Los Alamos transuranic waste shipment was rerouted to Waste Control Specialists in Andrews County, Texas following an accidental underground radiation release at WIPP in February 2014. Improper waste packaging caused a runaway chemical reaction inside one waste drum, leading a drum-rupturing explosion. The chemical culprits, DOE said, were nitrate salts or nitric acid from the waste mixed with organic kitty litter intended to keep the drum interior dry. Los Alamos should have used an inorganic substance, agency and lab personnel concluded.

After the accident, some Los Alamos waste was sent to Texas for what was originally envisioned as a short-term layover. That morphed into a longer-term arrangement after it was discovered that some of the containers diverted to the commercial were similar to the one that burst open underground at WIPP. The container that blew open at WIPP was the only container of its kind known to have done so.

The vast majority of the DOE-owned transuranic waste sent to Waste Control Specialists has already been deemed safe by the agency to ship onto WIPP. 

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has pushed DOE, since before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States in 2020, to move the waste out of Texas. It has enlisted the state attorney general’s office in the effort.  

In May, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave its blessing to a DOE plan to move the 74 waste boxes to a new location within the 1,300-acre acre Waste Control Specialists complex. 

The concrete canisters holding the waste boxes are to be moved to a new radiological control enclosure. The waste boxes have been long held at the site’s Federal Waste Facility. The waste relocation within the commercial property should start in September and be finished in February, Tonkay wrote in his late-June letter.

“Subject to regulatory approvals, the current processing timeline to complete filter replacements, overpack the [standard waste box contents into larger boxes] … with the glass beads, and re-certify the waste is July 2026,” Tonkay said. Shipping all the waste onto WIPP should be complete by the end of 2026.

This timeline is all contingent, however, on approvals from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, New Mexico Environment Department, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office manager, Mark Bollinger put it during a public meeting Tuesday: “[W]e are a ways away from being able to move that waste.”

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