The U.S. Energy Department’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico received 292 shipments of transuranic waste during 2019, dipping from 311 the year before, according to the latest figures on the site’s publicly available website.
The last shipment recorded on the website was Dec.7, although the database typically runs a couple weeks behind actual performance. However, WIPP suspended waste emplacement operations last month, and a DOE spokesperson confirmed 292 shipments as the total for the year.
The freeze on shipments was caused by an equipment problem at WIPP, according to a regular monthly report filed by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB).
Nuclear Waste Partnership, DOE’s contractor in charge of operating the salt mine disposal site, paused waste receipts due to a deficiency with waste hoist tail ropes, Alexander Velazquez-Lozada, an engineer for the board, explained in the December report to DNFSB Technical Director Christopher Roscetti.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a citation to WIPP “indicating that the waste hoist could not be used until a deficient tail rope, originally identified in May, was replaced,” Velazquez-Lozada wrote in the DNFSB document dated Jan. 3. It does not say exactly when shipments were suspended.
The hoist, which has a 45-ton capacity, is used to lower the material 2,100 feet into the WIPP underground.
The rope has now been replaced and WIPP expects to again start accepting waste shipments this month, the DNFSB document adds.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is again taking shipments following the repair, a DOE spokesperson said in a Friday email.
“Due to replacement of 2 ¼ inch diameter, 21,000-pound waste hoist tail rope, 7 shipments were received in December,” the DOE spokesperson said. “The number of shipments from year-to-year vary for a number of reasons (i.e. weather, planned and unplanned maintenance, and equipment availability).”
Disposal at WIPP got off to a slow start in part due to a long-than-usual maintenance outage last January and harsh weather, Nuclear Waste Partnership has acknowledged.
The Energy Department said in its draft strategic plan for WIPP it is targeting 400 shipments during fiscal 2020. Figures for October through December indicate only 38 shipments in the first three months of the new fiscal year. It received 318 for the entire 2019 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30.
The seven shipments last month all arrived between Dec. 4 and Dec. 6, according to the public database.
The disposal facility near Carlsbad was offline for almost three years following a February 2014 underground radiation release.
The 2019 breakdown of shipments includes two from Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, two from Waste Control Specialists in Texas, five from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, 27 from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and 29 from the Oak Ridge Site in Tennessee. The other 227 all came from Idaho National Laboratory, as DOE works to move most legacy TRU out of Idaho under a federal consent order.
One of the shipments that arrived during December came in a TRUPACT-III “large box” from SRS that weighed about 50,000 pounds fully loaded, or more than double the size of a typical TRUPACT-II container, DOE said this week. It marked WIPP’s first use of the large box in six years.
The large transuranic waste shipment includes items such as contaminated glove boxes, used motors, and large-scale equipment. Smaller TRU can include items like contaminated debris and rags.