WIPP: Shipments to grow by end of August, air system ongoing

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

Shipments of nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant are expected to increase to up to 10 per week by the end of August, as mining continues a planned expansion of the underground repository.

Waste is being emplaced in Room 5 of Panel 7 in the underground, with the room expected to be filled along with its entrance drift by the end of the month, said Bruce Covert, president of Nuclear Waste Partnership – the contractor that oversees WIPP’s day-to-day operations.

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He said WIPP is currently accepting about eight shipments per week, and emplaced 328 since the plant restarted operations last year, with 12,214 since it first opened in 1999.

Next year, WIPP expects to accept 330 shipments, with 165 coming from Idaho National Laboratory.

Forty-three are expected from Los Alamos National Laboratory, with 80 coming from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and another 37 from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Another five shipments were expected to come from Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

Todd Shrader, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO) said the estimate of 330 shipments is “conservative,” and could rise closer to 400.

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“We assume 40 shipping weeks per year,” he said. “That would make 400 a year. We come down a little from that just to be conservative. I would anticipate those numbers will stay there.”

After Room 5 is full, Covert said workers would move on to Room 3, hoping to have that full by the end of the year.

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He said he expected Panel 7 to be completely full by March 2021, and Panel 8 will be ready to accept waste the previous January.

While Panel 8 is mined, workers will also add mechanical bolts to control the salt drift, alternating between mining and ground control efforts, Covert said.

Bruce Covert, president of Nuclear Waste Partnership updates attendees on operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant during a town hall meeting, Aug. 2, 2018 in the Carlsbad Muncipal Annex.

“Employee safety is our highest priority,” he said. “There’s a lot of focus on ground control.”

About 6,000 bolts were installed this year, Cover said, and temporary closure of the south end of the underground was successfully completed.

He said that additional work set back mining efforts slightly.

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“We’re behind in mining a little,” Covert said. “But we’re confident we can hit that January deadline. The team is going good.”

Other projects at WIPP include establishing an alternate waste transport path in the underground, while remediating an area contaminated by a 2014 accidental radiological release that lead to a three-year closure of the facility.

WIPP officials are also hoping to increase air flow from the supplemental ventilation system, adding 20,000 cubic feet per minute of air to the underground.

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For fiscal year 2018, WIPP is planning to upgrade the facility’s fire suppression loop, while adding new air compressors, replacing a salt hoist switch, and replacing an aging roof on the waste handling building.

The project scope for FY 2019 remained in the planning stages, Covert said.

Potentially the biggest capital project at WIPP, an almost $400 million rebuild of the facility’s ventilation system, broke ground last month and construction is underway, said Rodney Whisenhunt, project manager with NWP.

Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway speaks during a town hall meeting about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Aug. 2, 2018 at the Carlsbad Municipal Annex.

The project is intended to increase airflow in the repository, which is needed while emplacement and mining continue simultaneously, putting more diesel-powered equipment and workers in the underground.

The rebuild consists of two parts: The Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS) and a new utility shaft.

The SSCVS was estimated costing about $273 million, while the shaft came in at about $100 million.

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Construction for the SSCVS was approved in May, and the utility shaft is still pending, Whisenhunt said.

“It’s kind of been a long journey,” he said. “We’re actually moving dirt out there for the projects.”

The project will include building a new 55,000 square foot filter building, a 25,000 square foot salt reduction building and a 12,000 square foot fabrication facility.

A trailer complex will also be installed to support the work, and the previous ventilation system will be demolished.

A map of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant's underground mine where nuclear waste is permanently stored.

A pilot hole is planned to be dug about 2,300 feet deep, about 1,200 feet west of the air intake shaft.

A north access bypass road, about 3 miles, will be added to reduce traffic in the area while work is ongoing.

“We’re having a lot of congestion out by the WIPP site from the oil and gas industry,” Whisenhunt said. “We’re seeing a lot of trucks drive by, and not turn into the facility.”

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Ongoing work on the system saw grading to make space for the trailers, while WIPP officials are evaluating bids for most the work.

The SSCVS will be designed to operate in filtration and non-filtration modes, Whisenhunt said, allowing an increase in airflow, but also the ability to switch to filtration in case of emergency.

Shrader said the system is needed not only to prevent radiological contamination, but from other issues in the underground such as vehicle exhaust.

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“The ventilation system, I don’t think there’s any doubt that we need more air,” he said. “We have air quality issues with non-radiological issues as well.”

John Heaton, chair of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force, said the system was a “fail safe,” intended to protect workers from air contamination.

“Having that fail-safe system is really a smart thing to do. I know it’s expensive, but if you look around the DOE complex and look at how much waste there was and how it costs to oversee it, it’s expensive,” Heaton said. “It’s a wise investment. It’s a safety investment. It’s protection for our workers.”

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