WIPP: Not enough space for proposed plutonium disposal

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

There isn’t enough room to dispose of a proposed 34 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

To do so, WIPP’s physical and statutory capacity will have to increase, per a Friday report from the National Academies of Sciences (NAS).

The report was the first of two the organization was tasked with creating by the federal government, for the proposed program. The final report was expected in summer 2019.

Emplacement of plutonium was expected, per the report, to begin in 2024, and end in 2049, with the program lasting “more than” 30 years.

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The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy proposed a “dilute-and-dispose” method to down-blend to meet WIPP’s waste acceptance criteria.

The dilution process would take place at the DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina before the waste is shipped to WIPP for disposal.

"We're committed to the safe disposal of nuclear materials and are pleased that this interim report validates the dilute and dispose approach to disposing of down blended surplus plutonium," said NNSA spokesman Dov Schwartz. 

"While we have not yet initiated a public outreach program specific to the disposition of the 34 metric tons, we are committed to working with local communities as we move forward with our plan."

In the report, the National Academies concluded that the dilution process was demonstrated as effective on a small scale – about 6 metric tons – but would likely have to be scaled up to account for 34.

More:DOE proposes reclassifying high-level nuclear waste, could send more to WIPP

“We concur that the technology has been demonstrated through the process,” said Robert Dynes, chair of the committee. “The next step is to scale it up. We expect changes.”

But the report also pointed to too little statutory capacity at WIPP, based on federal law, and simply not enough space to hold the waste in the underground repository.

“If you take the sum-total of all the plutonium coming to WIPP, we believe it exceeds WIPP’s capacity as congressionally required,” said William Ostendorf, panel member representing the U.S. Naval Academy.

Annie Kersting, committee member representing Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, said an additional panel and a half must be mined at WIPP to hold the extra waste, in addition to the two additional panels the facility needs to complete its current mission.

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A permit modification that would alter how waste volumes are tracked at WIPP was submitted by the DOE to the New Mexico Environment Department, and could mitigate the statutory concerns, Dynes said, but the facility also needs more physical space.

“It will help,” he said of the modification. “There’s both physical and statutory limits. (The modification) will help with the statutory limits. But there are also physical limits. There just isn’t enough space with the current panels.”

More panels, longer lifetime

Aside from the volume-tracking permit modification, the report also identified two other modifications needed that could expand the number of panels allowed at WIPP and extend the lifetime of the facility.

“WIPP is unique,” Dynes said. “In order to implement WIPP, have it prepared, there are modifications that are necessary.”

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Aside from the modification to WIPP’s permitting, the committee recommended two separate, independent oversight groups to oversee the process if implemented.

One team would publicly review the program regarding the concerns of New Mexico, while the other would review the classified aspects of the DOE plan as developed for Congress.

“Public outreach needs to be engaged substantially with the states affected,” Kersting said. “There needs to be engagement with the public.”

The committee also recommended developing and environmental impact study (EIS) but admitted the strategy for such an effort was unknown.

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

An EIS is a federal document prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) if a proposed federal action could significantly affect the quality of human health and the environment.  

“The statement is important because the amount of surplus plutonium being considered by NNSA’s dilute and dispose plan represents over half of the remaining surplus plutonium in the U.S. and is much larger than amounts previously considered under a supplemental environmental impact statement and would have a larger impact on multiple sites and states,” read a news release from the National Academies.

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Another necessity, read the report, is approval from the Russian Federation under the Plutonium Management and Disposal Agreement (PMDA) reached by the U.S. and Russia in 2000 to regulate the dilution of plutonium for disposal or conversion into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for electricity.

 “The lack of approval from the Russian Federation for using the dilute and dispose option to meet the PMDA requirements is also a barrier, the committee highlighted,” read the release. “PMDA was signed by both the U.S. and the Russian Federation to convert surplus plutonium into forms unrecoverable for use in nuclear weapons.”

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The report concluded that the NNSA’s dilute-and-dispose method was more efficient than the MOX option.

The report did not address any costs associated with the program.

“It is beyond the scope of the committee to look at cost,” Kersting said.

Could it work?

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 stated 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.”

Todd Shrader

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.

But Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, said the CBFO’s process is already flawed.

More:Officials study proposal to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium at WIPP

He said the committee identified barriers to the program, pointing out that CBFO has not adequately planned for the surplus plutonium to begin emplacement in about five years by 2024.

“It’s pretty unusual for a panel like that to make the recommendations they did at the interim stage,” Hancock said. "They’re saying the CBFO hasn’t planned properly. That’s pretty strong criticism.”

Hancock also said the NNSA’s lack of jurisdiction over WIPP needs to be addressed. WIPP is owned and regulated by the DOE’s Office of Emergency Management and New Mexico Environment Department.

More:State lawmakers, industry leaders tangle with nuclear waste site near Carlsbad

“The committee is saying that the NNSA is dealing with plutonium at a facility it doesn’t control,” Hancock said.

He also worried that the expansion of WIPP’s mission could lead to future additions to the waste emplaced at the facility, for lack of any other geological repository in the U.S. for nuclear waste.

“Congress and the government need to start a serious conversation about what we’re going to do in 50 years if WIPP is still the only repository,” Hancock said. “If we’re going to say everything is going to WIPP, that’s a different discussion. Everything can’t come to WIPP.”

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