Officials study proposal to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium at WIPP
A brief history of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Wochit
Weapons-grade plutonium could be coming to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, after the U.S. Department of Energy commissioned a national group of scientists to study the viability of diluting the surplus material and storing it permanently at WIPP.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) was tasked with evaluating the potential by looking at the DOE’s plans to “ship, receive and emplace surplus plutonium in WIPP,” read the group’s statement of task.
Experts estimated about 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium exist around the world, mostly in the U.S. and Russia, and six metic tons are presently being diluted at the DOE’s Savannah River Site in Georgia for potential shipment to WIPP, a process that started in 2012.
That load would mark about 25 percent of WIPP’s shipments if the site is approved for plutonium storage, and WIPP official estimated the program would cost about $17 billion, contending alternatives could cost up to $55 million.
A panel of about 15 scientists from universities, corporations and laboratories around the nation were convened to take part in the study, evaluating WIPP’s transportation capabilities, current and future operations, and compliance with federal regulations before and after the three-year cease in operations caused by a 2014 accidental radiological release.
The group’s first meeting was held in November 2017 in Washington D.C., and they subsequently met Tuesday in Carlsbad, where WIPP and DOE officials, along with local leaders gave presentations and fielded questions as to the viability of bringing plutonium to WIPP.
Senior Program Officer Jennifer Heimberg, of NAS’ Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board, said the group hopes to make a recommendation to the DOE by December.
She said the study is only considering WIPP for the program, and has not evaluated any other sites for disposal of plutonium.
Heimberg declined to comment on the board’s impressions after hearing from Carlsbad leaders.
“We’ve been directed to evaluate the viability of diluting and disposing plutonium at WIPP,” she said. “Our goal is to produce a report by the end of the year.”
Todd Shrader, manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO) — which oversees WIPP operations — said the office supports the proposal as part of the Department’s state mission to dispose of nuclear waste leftover from the Cold War.
“We support this, and will give (NAS) the support they need,” Shrader said. “It’s all hypothetical.”
Shrader said through the dilution process, plutonium could be characterized as transuranic (TRU), and permanently stored at WIPP using the facility’s existing infrastructure and processes.
“We would follow the processes that we have in place,” Shrader said.
Is it safe?
Plutonium was emplaced at WIPP in the past, read a presentation given at the panel’s first meeting by Betsy Forinash, director of the DOE’s National Transuranic Waste Program.
She said about 4.8 metric tons of surplus plutonium scraps and residues were brought in from the DOE’s Hanford Site in Washington, and Rocky Flats, a nuclear weapons production facility in Colorado.
Forinash argued WIPP has the capacity to hold the 6 metric tons being diluted at Savannah River, and the materials would take up about two rooms in the underground repository.
“WIPP continues to receive TRU waste shipments and remains the nation’s only geologically repository for permanent disposal of nuclear waste known transuranic waste,” she said. “Sufficient capacity exists for WIPP-bound transuranic waste including the disposal of 6 metric tons of surplus plutonium.”
Critics are unconvinced that WIPP can safely hold the plutonium, or that the facility’s mission can be expanded via federal law in an appropriate amount of time.
Emplacement at WIPP is directed by the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act (LWA), a federal law enacted in 1992 to regulate the amount of waste disposed of at the site.
Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) in Albuquerque said the LWA was last amended in 1996, and Congress could take decades to make additional amendments to expand acceptable waste at WIPP to include plutonium.
In the meantime, Hancock suggested securing the waste at its generator sites until a permanent storage solution, other than WIPP, is found.
Storage would be subjected to international monitoring and inspection, through an agreement between the U.S. and Russia, which Hancock said was sufficient to ensure safe emplacement without transporting the plutonium.
“We might be waiting a long time. The final disposition is decades away,” he said. “Congress is very slow to change the law. There is no quick fix solution. They need to look at other things they can do in the short term. We need to reiterate what WIPP’s mission is, and what it’s not.”
He also argued that oil and gas operations near WIPP — about 25 miles east of Carlsbad — have increased in recent years, making any physical expansions of the underground mine dangerous.
“Look at what happens around WIPP,” Hancock said. “There are 500 oil and gas wells surrounding WIPP. You can’t put nuclear waste in a volcano. When the site was picked, it wasn’t surrounded by oil and gas. Now it is. It’s too late to expand WIPP.”
Hancock also pointed to what he called WIPP’s history of safety concerns, and struggles to meet its goals and deadlines for emplacing waste.
In a presentation to the panel, he pointed to 8,000 feet of tunnels contaminated by the 2014 incident, and that 20,000 cubic meters of space were “lost” in the years before the accident.
Panel 1, Hancock said, only holds 10,497 cubic meters of waste, or about 58 percent of the 18,000 permitted. Several sections of Panel 1 were blocked off due to ground instability.
While Panel 2 is at about 99 percent capacity, Panels 3, 4, 5 and 6 — which were sealed off along with 1 and 2 — are all below 90 percent capacity, per SRIC records.
Overall, Hancock said WIPP was not a viable alternative to the DOE’s “failed” mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel program that would convert the surplus plutonium into fuel for power reactors.
The program, and a site constructed in South Carolina, recently stalled as the DOE sought alternatives, records show.
“WIPP is a bad place because its history is it hasn’t worked very well,” Hancock said. “Just like putting all your eggs in MOX doesn’t make sense, neither does putting it all at WIPP, with its poor performance. The idea that WIPP could solve a problem, when it is already having a hard time just existing, seems problematic.”
Carlsbad community voices support
New Mexico State Rep. Cathrynn Brown (R-55) said the Carlsbad community was supportive of WIPP since its opening in 1999, and she is confident emplacing plutonium will be done safely.
Brown sat on the New Mexico Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Committee, which provides oversight to WIPP and other nuclear-related projects across the state.
“We are a consenting community,” Brown said. “People are not afraid to ask questions. We are one of the few communities that accepted a project like this. If it’s not safe, we don’t want it.”
WIPP's infrastructure has proven to safely support plutonium disposal, Brown said.
“It’s already an operating facility,” Brown said. “It has received plutonium-type materials. And there is enough space. There is a lot of capacity into the future. WIPP is pretty much ready to go.”
Chair of the Eddy County Board of Commissioners Susan Crockett said Carlsbad is prepared to contribute to the national effort to dispose of nuclear waste.
“Carlsbad, once again, believes it may serve the nation,” Crockett said. “The surplus plutonium will create a new waste stream that needs to be addressed. With the plutonium diluted and packaged, it is just TRU waste. That’s what WIPP was made for.”
Saving tax dollars made plutonium storage especially attractive, Crockett said, given that the operation proceeds safely.
“Critics have some doomsday scenarios, but WIPP has been shown to be safe over and over again,” she said. “It makes sense to save taxpayers billions of dollars. That’s why Carlsbad is stepping up again to support the DOE’s plan. We are the ones impacted by what happens at the facility.”
Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway said WIPP was the nation’s only viable option for the plutonium.
“It is our opinion that the material being considered for the WIPP facility is safe,” Janway said. “We have already received similar waste from other locations. There is currently no market for it (MOX fuel) whatsoever.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, email@example.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.