SANTA FE — New Mexico's $1.2 billion repository for transuranic radioactive waste could extend its life for another 25 years, its managers said Tuesday.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad has a good chance of being in operation until 2055 because of continuing defense missions across America, they told state legislators.
WIPP is America's only deep geologic repository for transuranic radioactive waste from research and production of nuclear weapons. It employs about 1,000 people.
Farok Sharif, president and project manager of WIPP through the Nuclear Waste Partnership, said necessity would probably keep it open for a quarter-century long than its projected shutdown date of 2030.
He and Joe Franco, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy's Carlsbad field office, outlined WIPP's operations for a legislative committee that was created specifically to oversee the project.
They said WIPP now receives 17 to 19 shipments each week of transuranic waste from installations around the country. They include Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and installations in Idaho, Illinois and South Carolina.
Because labs and other defense operations will continue to produce transuranic radioactive waste, WIPP's purpose will continue to produce transuranic radioactive waste, WIPP will remain a plant with a purpose, they said.
"Los Alamos isn't going to disappear by 2030," Sharif said.
If fully funded, the plant could handle 35 shipments of waste a week. Franco said it was running close to that capacity when money from the federal stimulus plan was added to its budget.
About 100 people were laid off when the stimulus money ran out, he said.
WIPP's volume of work has been handled with an exemplary record for safety, Sharif said.
The plant in 2014 should reach a milestone of 5 million safe hours by its workers, he said.
Once WIPP ceases to accept waste, it will undergo a shutdown period of five years.
The plant would be demolished, not mothballed, Sharif said. The longer it contributes to the safe disposal of transuranic radioactive waste, the more mileage taxpayers get for the cost of building the plant, he said.
WIPP could not accept other types of nuclear waste unless Congress changed the law defining its mission.