Department of Energy: Half of nuclear waste shipments to WIPP come from Idaho National Lab
A deal between Idaho state officials and the U.S. Department of Energy could mean more than half of all the nuclear waste disposed of at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad will come from Idaho National Laboratory (INL).
The DOE pledged to allocate at least 55 percent of all future shipments of transuranic (TRU) waste to WIPP as coming from INL.
Idaho will also receive priority when additional shipments are made available, per a news release from the office of Idaho Gov. Brad Little.
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The allocation will remain in effect until all TRU waste is shipped out of Idaho.
Records show the DOE shipped more than 31,500 cubic meters of TRU waste from INL to WIPP, as of Nov. 7.
INL is currently the majority shipper of nuclear waste to WIPP, DOE records show, with 6,396 shipments as of Nov. 9, or about 50 percent of the 12,617 shipments received by WIPP since it opened in 1999.
TRU waste is made up of gloves, smocks, clothing and other items radiated during nuclear activities.
It’s considered low-level waste, and permanently disposed of at WIPP when the waste is emplaced in WIPP’s salt mine about 2,000 feet underground. The salt gradually creeps in on itself, burying the waste.
“WIPP coordinates with individual locations, including INL, to determine the best possible utilization of resources for both WIPP and each waste generator site,” said WIPP spokesman Khushroo Ghadiali.
“Currently INL has the greatest volume of ready to ship waste in the DOE complex and as such they represent the majority of shipments to the WIPP site at this time.”
He said the time frames of specified allocations of waste acceptance from various sites throughout the country depends on the needs of those facilities.
WIPP personnel and the DOE work closely to determine policy as to how much waste is accepted from a certain location, Ghadiali said, and how long shipments will be sent.
“Since each EM site has different requirements, the timeframes and shipments can vary depending on the various sites’ needs,” he said. “WIPP works with each of the sites to meet their individual cleanup requirements. The agreement is not expected to adversely impact the cleanup of any DOE site.
“As the nation’s only repository for the disposal of transuranic waste, WIPP plays a vital role in DOE’s nuclear cleanup mission.”
Other sites that send waste to WIPP included Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site with 2,045 shipments, along with the Savannah River Site at 1,666 shipments and Los Alamos National Laboratory with 1,377 shipments.
Secretary of Energy Rick Perry Perry toured the facility with Carlsbad Field Office officials Thursday morning.
The deal between the DOE and the State of Idaho was struck years after the Department began breaching a settlement contract with Idaho to remove waste, missing a deadline to have all waste out of INL by 2018.
Because of the contract breaches, the State of Idaho invoked a clause in the 1995 settlement to block all shipments of spent nuclear fuel to INL for processing.
The new agreement was signed by Little and Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden on Nov. 6.
INL was granted a one-time waiver by the State to accept 25 commercial spent nuclear fuel rods, about 100 pounds of heavy metal, from the Byron Nuclear Generating State in Illinois.
But first, INL must begin treating sodium bearing liquid high-level waste, turning it into a safer, dryer solid state.
That liquid waste was being held in tanks directly above the Snake River Aquifer, a major aquifer in southern Idaho as the DOE works to address operational problems at the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit.
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In exchange for the one-time shipment, the DOE also agreed to move at least 300 pounds of special nuclear material from Idaho by the end of 2021 and treat at least 165 pounds of sodium bonded driver fuel each year until all are treated – no later than 2029.
“This agreement is a significant development in our ongoing efforts to remove legacy nuclear waste from our state while also supporting the essential research mission of INL as the lead national laboratory for nuclear energy research,” Little said.
Wasden said the deal would not only remove more waste from Idaho, but also increase treatment of dangerous materials left over from nuclear development.
“This agreement is good for the State of Idaho,” he said. “It ensures the Department of Energy’s commitment to remove nuclear waste from INL while also incentivizing the department to turn the most dangerous liquid waste into a much safer and more manageable solid.
“As those who have been familiar with my stance on this issue over the years know, nothing is more important than treating that liquid waste and protecting our precious aquifer.”
Don Hancock, nuclear waste program director at the Southwest Research and Information Center said INL "played a leading role" in WIPP since the 1980s, and estimated up to 80 percent of WIPP's shipments so far in 2019 came from Idaho.
He said the commitment of guaranteeing at least 55 percent of WIPP's shipments are from INL was significant in that it upped the urgency to remove waste from the lab.
Hancock said Idaho officials first became aware the 2018 deadline would not be met in 2014, when an accidental radiological release resulted in a three-year cease in WIPP's waste emplacement operations.
"Idaho has long been a leading proponent of WIPP being open and able to accept its waste," Hancock said. "if everything goes correctly, this shouldn't really have an effect. The problem is if and when things are not going right at WIPP, and if there's an interruption in shipments."
There was also the risk that WIPP could be full before all the waste is removed from INL, Hancock said.
"All the wast that the DOE wants to sent to WIPP, at some point is not going to fit," he said. "They want it all out of Idaho as soon as possible, and before WIPP is full."
A brief history of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.