Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 30 No. 46
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Article 8 of 14
December 06, 2019

WIPP Catches Up With 2018 Waste Shipment Pace

By Wayne Barber

The U.S. Energy Department’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico received 275 shipments of defense-related transuranic waste during the first 10 months of this year, compared to 272 during the same period in 2018.

October is the last full month for which shipment information is available through WIPP’s public database. It shows that the underground site has finally caught up with last year’s waste disposal pace.

The salt mine near the city of Carlsbad only received 115 shipments of transuranic defense waste during the first five months of 2019, down from 138 in the same period of 2018. Nuclear Waste Partnership, the Energy Department’s prime contractor for WIPP, chalked that up to inclement weather at the outset of the year, along with a longer-than-usual maintenance outage from January into early February.

By the end of August, WIPP was only seven shipments behind the 2018 pace with 225 – compared to 232 in the first eight months of last year.

The database indicates 219 shipments came to WIPP through October from the Idaho National Laboratory, with the remainder split between the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico (27), the Oak Ridge Site in Tennessee (23), the Savannah River Site in South Carolina (2), Waste Control Specialists in Texas (2), and the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois (2).

As far as monthly performance, May was the busiest so far in 2019 with 42 shipments. Aside from January, with one shipment, the next slowest month was October with 21. All of the October shipments occurred in either the first or the last week of the month. Representatives at the disposal facility did not reply as to whether there was an outage during the month.

This is the second full year of operation for WIPP since it shut down for nearly three years following an underground radiation leak in February 2014.

Advocacy Groups Question Why WIPP Needs New Utility Shaft

Meanwhile, Nuclear Waste Partnership is optimistic the state will give the green light to its plan for a new utility shaft that is opposed by two local advocacy groups.

“The project remains on course as we prepare for the construction process,” Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) spokesman Bobby St. John said in a Nov. 26 email.

The contractor and DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office on Aug. 15 together requested a formal permit modification for the project with the New Mexico Environment Department, St. John said. On Aug. 21, WIPP management announced a $75 million award for a subcontractor, Harrison Western-Shaft Sinkers Joint Venture, to build a new underground utility shaft.

The multipurpose shaft would enhance the estimated $500 million ventilation upgrade project at the WIPP, by making it easier to adjust to weather extremes on the surface before the airflow reaches the underground workings. Having the extra shaft would make it easier to adjust airflow to accommodate changes in humidity on the surface, DOE says. It would also provide a second access point into the underground for people and equipment, according to DOE and its contractor.

Critics, however, say an already-approved new ventilation system will increase underground airflow to pre-2014 accident levels of 425,000 cubic feet per minute without the new ventilation shaft.

Both Nuclear Watch New Mexico and the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) question why WIPP needs the new utility shaft.

The New Mexico Environment Department should not feel obligated to approve the shaft, which would be 2,150 feet deep and 30 feet in diameter, merely because a contract award has been announced, Santa Fe-based Nuclear Watch New Mexico said in its Oct. 16 comments on the permit modification.

“Originally billed as a replacement exhaust shaft to help WIPP recover from the 2014 exploding drum event that shut down WIPP for three years,” the new shaft is now designed to increase the waste-disposal mission of the site beyond the existing maximum of 175,500 cubic meters of defense-related transuranic waste, the group said.

Nuclear Watch argued the primary purpose of the shaft, as reflected in prior filings by DOE and the contractor, is providing a new access point into the mine. The group says this new access will be chiefly used to develop new waste storage panels for expansion of the underground.

Along those lines, Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center, in its Oct. 16 comments, said DOE hopes to ship additional waste, such as downblended plutonium from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, to WIPP.

Both Southwest Research and Nuclear Watch New Mexico are suing DOE over a revised formula for counting the volume of waste underground at WIPP.

In addition, SRIC said the ongoing Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System project at WIPP will, once completed, allow concurrent salt mining, maintenance, and waste emplacement underground – without the addition of the new shaft.

The shaft would grant DOE and its contractor easier access to an area of the mine where new disposal panels can be developed, the groups say. The groups want the state to have DOE and the contractor submit a full environmental study in the new shaft and any new disposal panels it would service.

The permit modification that NWP and the Energy Department submitted for the new shaft is being reviewed for “technical completeness,” Maddy Hayden, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Environment Department, said in a Monday email.

There is no timeline for a decision on the modification, Hayden said. Once the document is technically complete, additional public comment and possibly a public hearing could be held, she added.

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