Air counted as waste? WIPP to adjust tracking of emplacement volumes

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus
A worker looks on at a tank of nuclear waste in one of WIPP's underground passages.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is at more than half capacity, but more than a third of the calculated space taken up could be nothing but air.

The Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership published a modification to WIPP's permit with the New Mexico Environment Department on Friday, hoping to alter the way storage is recorded to avoid counting air and empty space in the underground repository along with the transuranic waste itself.

With that modification, officials said the facility is only about a third full.

Such a distinction could extend the life of WIPP, bringing it closer to the U.S. Department of Energy’s goal of keeping the facility active through 2050.

After a hearing in the coming months, NMED will ultimately rule on the proposal.

The DOE is requesting WIPP’s volume of record for the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act (LWA), be based on the volume of the inner waste container, closer to volume of the waste itself, rather than the current methodology using the outer container’s overall volume.

Read:WIPP air system to cost about $400M, complete by 2022

The outer container volume will still be reported to the state, but the DOE is aiming to better track the inner container volume in regards to the maximum capacity allowed by the permit.  

Transuranic waste is emplaced in WIPP, an underground salt mine, using multiple layers of containment, the outermost of which – officials worried – often includes empty air because the smaller inner containers often have spaces in-between.

WIPP spokesman Bill Taylor argued the adjustment would allow more accurate tracking of how much waste is underground.

“This change will allow the DOE to better track the volume of waste authorized by Congress for disposal at WIPP,” he said. “Using the outer containers to calculate the volume means that some air is being ‘counted’ as waste.”

With a maximum capacity of 175,565 cubic meters (m3) allowed by the permit, WIPP currently contains about 92,000 m3 under the contested method of calculation.

But with the proposed modifications, WIPP would only be presently holding about 65,000 m3, freeing up about 38,000 m3.

A CAST Specialty Transportation truck delivers the first shipment to WIPP since its 2014 closure in April. CAST was recently awarded a DOE contract for the next five years.

“Making this change in methodology now will establish a clearer basis for DOE’s Office of Environmental Management to initiate detailed strategic planning to ensure WIPP has the necessary capacity to support current and future DOE transuranic waste shipments,” Taylor said.

John Heaton, chair of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force, said the adjustment was discussed by the DOE and WIPP officials for years.

More:WIPP: 12,000 shipments since opening, 100 since April

He said officials at WIPP often expressed concerns that the amount of waste counted as emplaced far exceeded the amount that was disposed of.

“Assumptions have been made about how to count the waste,” Heaton said. “The LWA is very clear that air is not waste. But they’re counting a lot of air.”

Part of the problem arose from a process called overpacking, where drums of waste are shipped to WIPP from various national laboratories in larger containers to comply with certain shipping requirements.

Heaton said if the overpacks are counted, and the amount of waste is calculated by the size of the package, the total calculated volume is not reflective of the waste itself thus filling WIPP’s capacity sooner, and shortening its lifetime.

“If you think about the future of WIPP, it’s theoretically half full,” Heaton said. “But it’s really only a third full. There’s a lot of space between the drums.”

He pointed specifically to the storage of transuranic waste in cylindrical drums. If stored in a rectangular container, the cylinders would barely touch, leaving gaps that in the past were added to the total calculated volume.

Freeing up that lost space, Heaton said, would ensure WIPP’s sustainability for the future.

“This enables us to do a lot of things we would not be able to do,” he said. “It extends the life of WIPP extensively. The whole point is to quit counting the air, and just count the drums themselves.”

US Rep. Steve Pearce speaks to employees and politicians Monday at the reopening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) commended the proposal as extending the lifetime of the WIPP facility. He said WIPP’s continued activity is essential to cleaning up the nation’s remaining nuclear waste, and ensuring the country’s security.

“WIPP is a major contributor to the Carlsbad economy and plays a vital role in our nation’s security,” Pearce said. “This permit modification will add greater long-term stability to the WIPP facility, and will provide for greater accuracy in reporting the amount of material. At the end of the day, WIPP is successful because of the dedicated workforce and community.”

Read:WIPP: Small businesses 63 percent of subcontract budget

Pearce said he looked forward to ongoing discussions between the DOE, WIPP officials and the public as the modification moved through the approval process. 

“I appreciate the DOE’s commitment to an open and honest conversation with the community,” Pearce said. “I look forward to continue to work with everyone associated with the site to increase productivity while strengthening the safety of the facility.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.