WIPP: Infrastructure projects needed to ramp up nuclear waste shipments to Carlsbad

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

Officials from the U.S. Department of Energy are hoping to ramp up shipments of nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad to about 17 per week by 2023.

The facility is current accepting about 10 per week.

To meet the goal of increasing shipments, Acting Manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office Greg Sosson said numerous ongoing infrastructure upgrades at the facility were needed.

“Infrastructure ages. We understand we have a lot more waste stream we’re going to tackle,” Sosson said. “These are really good projects to make sure WIPP is sustainable in the future so we can perform our important mission.”

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Sosson, at Monday’s annual WIPP Legislative Breakfast, said officials plan on WIPP accepting up to 350 shipments of transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste in the next year from numerous DOE facilities, including 80 from Los Alamos National Laboratory and 195 from Idaho National Laboratory.

But to continue to accept waste at an increasing pace, Sosson said the facility must solve its airflow problem.

Currently, the WIPP underground where waste is permanently emplaced offers about 170,000 cubic feet per minute (CFM) of clean air for workers.

More:WIPP: North bypass road nears completion, nuclear shipments to cease for maintenance

An about $300 million rebuild of the facility’s ventilation system would increases airflow at WIPP to 540,000 CFM, allowing waste emplacement and mining work to occur simultaneously.

WIPP’s airflow was reduced after an accidental radiological release in 2014 left portions of the underground contaminated and caused the facility to close for three years.

To further augment airflow in the underground a $100 million project to install a new utility shaft also took shape in 2019 as the DOE applied for a permit for construction of the shaft with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED).

More:Will the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad store nuclear waste until 2052?

CBFO Acting Manager Greg Sosson speaks at the annual WIPP Legislative Breakfast, Feb. 3, 2020 at the Hotel Santa Fe.

“As many know since the incident in 2014, we’ve been operating with less airflow in the underground. Everything is safe, but we’re limited based on the airflow,” Sosson said. “You really need to be able to mine and emplace waste at the same time. We need to be able to make sure workers can be safe. That’s really a major, major focus.”

But to make construction of the shaft safe, Sosson pointed to a project to build WIPP’s North Access Road Bypass to direct traffic away from the area where the shaft was to be sunk.

“Hundreds if not thousands of vehicles pass by us every day,” he said. “In digging a new shaft, you use explosives. It would be best to keep that away from the public, so we don’t impede general traffic and they don’t impede us.”

More:Savannah River Site sends first large shipment of nuclear waste to WIPP since 2014 incident

Sean Dunagan, president of Nuclear Waste Partnership – the contractor hired to oversee daily operations – said WIPP’s south end and four panels where waste was emplaced were sealed off.

He said Panel 7 was almost full, and mining operations on the Panel 8 were nearing completion.

“The goal is to have panel 8 ready whenever panel 7 is full so we can seamlessly transition,” Dunagan said. “I’m happy to say we have completed a rough cut for Panel 8.”

Nuclear Waste Partnership President Sean Dunagan speaks at the annual WIPP Legislative Breakfast, Feb. 3, 2020 at the Hotel Santa Fe.

The “rough cut” was the full cut of the panel and was completed in 2019, Dunagan said. Workers were expected to complete a “final cut” to finish refining and preparing the panel to accept waste by the end of the year.

Dunagan said that mines can be unsafe places to work so WIPP personnel prioritize safety.

“Being able to go home with our families is extremely important. No one should have to compromise that," Dunagan said.

More:WIPP: New acting manager at Department of Energy's Carlsbad Field Office

In total, Dunagan reported WIPP had emplaced 12,592 shipments since operations began in 1999.

And shipments could increase after WIPP accepted its first TRUPACT III container of waste in six years from Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

The container holds more than 50,000 pounds of waste, compared with the more commonly-used TRUPACT II cask that weighs about 19,250 pounds.

“We’re getting back in the shipping business,” he said. “It will take some time to get to where we were before the events of 2014. We finally able to begin taking these large pieces from all of the other sites.”

More:Department of Energy: Half of nuclear waste shipments to WIPP come from Idaho National Lab

NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said the Department was working closely with WIPP officials on numerous regulatory issues.

A permit modification approved by former-Cabinet Secretary Butch Tongate would see WIPP officials alter how they track the volume of waste emplaced, potentially leading to the plant being considered only a third full while the past method meant it was half full.

New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary James Kenney speaks at the annual WIPP Legislative Breakfast, Feb. 3, 2020 at the Hotel Santa Fe.

An ongoing lawsuit by a coalition of environmental activist groups sought to overturn the decision, and Kenney said the case might go to a hearing.

“We tried to do some mediation with all the parties involved. That didn’t work,” Kenney said. “The litigation is continuing. The environmental advocates want a hearing.”

More:WIPP: New Mexico nuclear waste site's five-year plan deemed 'insufficient' by state leaders

He also pointed to a 10-year hazardous waste permit renewal the DOE and NWP applied for with NMED that could push WIPP’s final emplacement date from 2024 to 2052.

That request was still being considered, and Kenney would not comment on if it would be accepted.

“Our WIPP people are ready to go through that,” Kenney said. “We’re on schedule and I don’t foresee a lack of consistency. I don’t want to be quoted as be pre-supportive, but we are on schedule as is the DOE.”

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