Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor Vol. 26 No. 23
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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor
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June 09, 2022

WIPP, NNSA seeking closer cooperation on waste disposal plans

By Wayne Barber

SUMMERLIN, NEV. — With the National Nuclear Security Administration hoping to see the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico producing 30 plutonium pits by 2026, the organization is working closely with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on plans for the increased transuranic waste levels, speakers told the RadWaste Summit Wednesday.

With the DOE Office of Environmental Management entering its 33rd year, and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) its 22nd, “we find increasingly the need for the two organizations not to just work in parallel or next to each other, but to work in a much more integrated and collaborative fashion,” David Campbell, a senior vice president with Veolia’s VNS Federal Services said during the conference hosted by Exchange Monitor Publications.

Over the past year or more, Los Alamos management contractor Triad National Security and legacy cleanup contractor Newport News Nuclear-BWXT Los Alamos have been jointly loading transuranic waste into the same shipping containers, said Reinhard Knerr, the manager of DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office, which oversees the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

“That’s fantastic, because it increases reliability and shipping,” Knerr said.

During the past couple of years, managers from Carlsbad have spent time at Los Alamos getting briefed on the “dilute and dispose” program for transuranic waste resulting from the NNSA’s program to dispose of plutonium declared surplus to national security needs. Los Alamos converts plutonium metal to plutonium oxide and ships the powderized component to the Savannah River Site, which blends the material with concrete-like grout in preparation for burial at WIPP.

Los Alamos will be churning out even more transuranic waste than that come 2026, when the lab is supposed to begin producing 30 brand new plutonium pits, fissile nuclear-weapon cores, a year. That new production mission will make the lab a more prominent WIPP shipper, said Ahmad Al-Daouk, the NNSA’S deputy associate administrator for enterprise stewardship, who is based in Albuquerque, N.M.

In response to a question, Knerr said WIPP is aware of expectations inside of New Mexico that Los Alamos be considered a priority shipper of defense-related transuranic waste. Knerr also indicated ongoing infrastructure upgrades at WIPP, such as the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System, should increase the amount of shipments WIPP can accommodate from Los Alamos and elsewhere.

“As we increase our shipments to 17 or higher [per week of operation], I think there’s going to be sufficient capacity to meet all the needs of the generator complex,” Knerr said.

For fiscal year 2022, DOE was targeting a total of about 200 shipments to WIPP, which averages out to fewer than 10 weekly. Last year, Knerr said it could take until 2023 to get up to 17 shipments weekly, a throughput the mine has not managed since before the underground fire and radiation release of 2014 that closed down WIPP for about three years.

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