Tag Archives: Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)

Forget Nevada! How America Buries its Nuclear Waste 1999-2019

Just before midnight on June 27, 2019, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), Carlsbad, New Mexico received its 12,500th transuranic (TRU) waste shipment since operations began there in 1999.

Nuclear Waste heading to WIPP from Idaho

The shipment originated from the EM program at Idaho National Laboratory, which has sent WIPP the most TRU waste shipments — 6,500 and counting — of all Departement of Energy (DOE) generator sites over the past 20 years…

Idaoho National Laboratory Nuclear Waste Management

WIPP drivers have safely traveled over 14.9 million loaded miles, transporting more than 178,500 waste containers for permanent disposal 2,150 feet underground.

Excerpts from WIPP Reaches 12,500-Shipment Milestone, Press Release US Department of Energy, July 2, 2019

How to Clean a Multibillion-Dollar Radioactive Mess: WIPP

Twenty years and more than 12,380 shipments later, tons of Cold War-era waste from decades of bomb-making and nuclear research across the U.S. have been stashed in the salt caverns that make up the underground facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant  (WIPP) in New Mexico. Each week, several shipments of special boxes and barrels packed with lab coats, rubber gloves, tools and debris contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements are trucked to the site.

But the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has not been without issues.  A 2014 radiation leak forced an expensive, nearly three-year closure, delayed the federal government’s cleanup program and prompted policy changes at national laboratories and defense-related sites across the U.S. More recently, the U.S. Department of Energy said it would investigate reports that workers may have been exposed last year to hazardous chemicals.

Still, supporters consider the repository a success, saying it provides a viable option for dealing with a multibillion-dollar mess that stretches from a decommissioned nuclear weapons production site in Washington state to one of the nation’s top nuclear research labs, in Idaho, and locations as far east as South Carolina… Overall 22 sites around the nation that have been cleaned up as a result of having somewhere to put the waste — including Rocky Flats, a former nuclear weapons plant outside Denver that had a history of leaks, spills and other violations.

For critics, that success is checkered at best since the repository is far from fulfilling its mission.  “It’s 80 percent through its lifetime, and it has disposed of less than 40 percent of the waste and has cost more than twice as much as it was supposed to,” said Don Hancock with the watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center. “How great of a success is that?” Officials initially thought the facility would operate for about 25 years. Rather than wrapping up in the next few years, managers have bumped the timeline to 2050….

With some areas permanently sealed off due to contamination, more mining will have to be done to expand capacity. The federal government also is spending more than a half-billion dollars to install a new ventilation system, sink more shafts and make other upgrades aimed at returning to “normal business.”..,.

Toney Anaya, who served as New Mexico governor in the 1980s, remembers the heated debates about bringing more radioactive waste to the state. He said there were concerns about safety, but the promise of jobs was attractive. Some also argued New Mexico had a moral obligation given its legacy of uranium mining and its role in the development of the atomic bomb.

Excerpts First-of-its-kind US nuclear waste dump marks 20 years, Associated Press, Mar. 23, 2019

Nuclear Waste Disposal in Canada

Critics of Ontario Power Generation’s plan to build an underground nuclear waste dump on the shores of Lake Huron have always considered it absurd.…The fiercely debated plan to build what is called a Deep Geological Repository (DGR) has been going on for 14 years. In addition to Michigan lawmakers, more than 150,000 people have signed petitions, and 187 communities representing 22 million people have passed resolutions opposing the plan.

What has been in the works for decades is the construction of an underground permanent burial facility for all of Ontario’s low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station in Kincardine, Ontario.  That’s less than a mile inland from the shores of Lake Huron and about 440 yards below the lake level. Kincardine, a small community about 114 miles upstream from Port Huron agreed to have the facility in their town but will be financially compensated.  If and when the DGR is in place, an estimated 52 million tons of nuclear waste will be shipped to the site from other nuclear plants around Canada. Some of those discarded materials will remain toxic for more than 100,000 years as they are stored in limestone caverns. Once full, the shafts are to be sealed with sand, clay and concrete.

OPG has assured the residents and the public, “Years of scientific research have shown that the geology under the Bruce nuclear site is ideal for a DGR; it is some of the tightest rock in the world, impermeable limestone that has remained intact through 450 million years, multiple ice ages and glaciers.”  However great limestone might be to say it can hold up to nuclear waste seems presumptuous considering the current reputation of the world’s other DGRs.“There are only three deep nuclear waste dumps on our entire planet to have held nuclear waste,” Fernandez said. “They have all failed and leaked.”The three sites include the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico and two German sites, Asse II and Morslenben, both former salt mines.

The WIPP nuclear waste dump was supposed to contain its deadly waste for 10,000 years. Despite scientific assurance to the contrary, a mere 15 years into WIPP’s operational phase, a container exploded, spewing its deadly contents up to the surface, contaminating 22 workers and traveling into the biosphere and down to the next town, said Fernandez.

As part of an environmental assessment of the plan, a panel appointed by the federal government heard testimony by individuals and experts on both sides of the debate. Among the speakers to present evidence (in a well-documented report) that OPG was misleading the public including what they planned to store in the facility was Dr. Frank Greening. His report was thought to put an end to the plan.  Greening is a scientist, who worked for more than 20 years in the nuclear division of OPG. He was one of their most senior men, a chemist in charge of overseeing the degradation of structural materials, especially the crucially important pipes in the primary cooling systems of CANDU reactors.

Greening submitted a report disclosing important factors that OPG failed to share among them being the radioactive inventory for the proposed repository. Using words like dirty rags and mops, which is how they described some of the waste to be stored, does not sound as alarming as old reactors or ion exchange resins that bear a significant amount of Carbon-14, a radionuclide that has a half-life of more than 5,700 years.  “They’ve done a very sloppy job in looking at the hazards of the waste. You cannot just look at the radioactive properties but also its chemical properties,” Greening said. The chemical properties of the waste can lead to fires and explosions underground, which as critics fear, could cause a leak.

Building the DGR also requires a mining company to dynamite the rock formations. What about the potential risk to the nuclear plant itself, during construction of the DGR?  “I could go on and on about the scenarios and this is what they’re not talking about,” Greening said.

Another point of concern that Greening feels everyone is overlooking is OPG’s degraded safety culture and its lackadaisical response to concerns about unforeseen accidents. As an example of its history, Greening cited several incidents at OPG that allowed workers (many of them local tradesmen) to be exposed to radioactive materials including plutonium dust.

But I believe one should always look for the least risky solution and that would be to build it inland, in the Canadian Shield (granite), in Manitoba, like they originally planned to do in the 1980s.”

Excerpts from Ontario’s plan to bury nuclear waste near Lake Huron continues,  The Macomb Daily, Feb. 2017

Kitty Litter and Nuclear Waste: Don’t Mix

The US energy department is to fund $73m in road and other infrastructure projects in New Mexico as compensation for radiation leaks at a nuclear laboratory and underground dump.The deal struck between the department and New Mexico forgoes fines and instead applies funds to upgrade federal nuclear facilities and surrounding communities in the state, according to settlement documents.  Projects include construction of a $5m emergency operations centre in Carlsbad, near where the nuclear waste dump leaked radiation in February 2014.

The leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or Wipp, exposed 22 workers to radiation in amounts not expected to threaten their health and led to the indefinite suspension of key operations at the site, which is the energy department’s only permanent underground disposal facility for certain types of waste from US nuclear labs.The radiation accident was caused by “chemically incompatible” contents, including cat litter, which reacted in a barrel of waste and caused it to rupture, according to a federal probe of the mishap.  The breached drum containing radioisotopes such as plutonium was improperly packaged with the wrong sort of absorbent litter at the Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe before it arrived at WIPP for disposal, investigators found….

The deal includes $34m to improve roads around the Wipp site, $12m to improve nuclear waste transportation routes in and around Los Alamos, and $9.5m in stormwater management upgrades at the lab’s complex.In addition it provides $10m for improvements to water infrastructure in and around Los Alamos and $2.75m for an independent compliance and operational review. Energy department officials have estimated the cost of the initial recovery of the dump at $240m and that it might be two years or more before it is fully operational.

Excerpts from New Mexico radiation accident: $73m compensation deal struck over leak, Guardian, Apr. 30, 2015

Nuclear Waste Mismanagement: Los Alamos to WIPP

The Timeline

June 2011: Las Conchas Fire threatens transuranic nuclear waste stored at Los Alamos.

Jan. 5, 2012: New Mexico Environment Department and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) prioritize cleanup of above-ground legacy waste and agree on a June 30, 2014, deadline to ship all Cold War-era nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

June 26, 2012: Gov. Susana Martinez visits Los Alamos to celebrate the 1,000th shipment of waste to WIPP.

Aug. 1, 2012: LANL changes policy, requiring organic kitty litter instead of the clay-based variety to absorb liquids in packaging of nuclear waste.

September 2012: The lab begins using organic kitty litter exclusively as an absorbent in waste.

August 2013: LANL officials authorize waste packaging contractor EnergySolutions to add neutralizer to acidic waste, despite manufacturer’s warnings about incompatibility.

Dec. 4, 2013: Waste Drum 68660 is packaged at Los Alamos for shipment to WIPP.

Feb. 5, 2014: An underground truck fire forces evacuation at WIPP.

Feb. 14, 2014: A chemical reaction causes the drum to rupture, triggering a radiation leak that exposed more than 20 workers to contamination and indefinitely shut down WIPP.

May 2014: The first public reports emerge that organic kitty litter may have been a factor in the radiation leak at WIPP, and WIPP officials learn details about the waste from LANL that indicate the lab hid certain truths about its contents and their volatility.

June 17, 2014: LANL scientists conclude heat from the ruptured drum at WIPP could have made up to 55 more drums stored nearby more volatile.

July 23, 2014: LANL officials acknowledge a lead-contaminated glove in the waste drum that burst at WIPP has been added to the factors being investigated as the possible cause.

Sept. 30, 2014: U.S. Department of Energy announces full resumption of activities at WIPP could be five years away and estimates the recovery cost at $500 million.

Oct. 1, 2014: U.S. Department of Energy Office of Inspector General issues a report condemning LANL for failing to follow its own internal safety procedures and warnings against mixing volatile components in the drum that ruptured at WIPP.

In the summer of 2012, Gov. Susana Martinez visited the hilltop facilities of Los Alamos National Laboratory to commemorate a milestone. The lab, under an agreement with the state, had just shipped its 1,000th truckload of Cold War-era nuclear waste from the grounds of Los Alamos to a salt cavern deep under the Southern New Mexico desert.  The achievement meant the lab was well on its way to meeting a June 30, 2014, deadline imposed by Martinez to remove radioactive gloves, machinery and other equipment left over from decades of nuclear weapons research.

For Los Alamos National Security LLC, the private consortium that operates the lab, the stakes were high. Meeting the deadline would help it secure an extension of its $2.2 billion annual contract from the U.S. Department of Energy.

But the following summer, workers packaging the waste came across a batch that was extraordinarily acidic, making it unsafe for shipping. The lab’s guidelines called for work to shut down while the batch underwent a rigid set of reviews to determine how to treat it, a time-consuming process that jeopardized the lab’s goal of meeting the deadline.
Instead, the lab and its various contractors took shortcuts in treating the acidic nuclear waste, adding neutralizer and a wheat-based organic kitty litter to absorb excess liquid. The combination turned the waste into a potential bomb that one lab chemist later characterized as akin to plastic explosives, according to a six-month investigation by The New Mexican.

The lab then shipped a 55-gallon drum of the volatile material 330 miles to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only underground repository for nuclear waste, southeast of Carlsbad. Documents accompanying the drum, which were supposed to include a detailed description of its contents, were deeply flawed. They made no mention of the acidity or the neutralizer, and they mischaracterized the kitty litter as a clay-based material — not the more combustible organic variety that most chemists would have recognized as hazardous if mixed with waste laden with nitrate salts, according to interviews and a review of thousands of pages of documents and internal emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In Feb. 14, with the campaign to clear the waste from Los Alamos more than 90 percent complete, the drum’s lid cracked open. Radiation leaked into the air. Temperatures in the underground chamber soared to 1,600 degrees, threatening dozens of nearby drums. At least 20 workers were contaminated with what federal officials have described as low levels of radiation.

The facility, meanwhile, remains shut down as an estimated $500 million recovery effort expected to last several years gets underway, leaving thousands of containers of nuclear waste destined for WIPP stranded at national laboratories across the country.

Documents and internal emails show that even after the radiation leak, lab officials downplayed the dangers of the waste — even to the Carlsbad managers whose staff members were endangered by its presence — and withheld critical information from regulators and WIPP officials investigating the leak. Internal emails, harshly worded at times, convey a tone of exasperation with LANL from WIPP personnel, primarily employees of the Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the repository.

Taken together, the documents provide a window into a culture of oversight at the lab that, in the race to clean up the waste, had so broken down that small missteps sometimes led to systemic problems….

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s Accident Investigation Board, an arm of the Energy Department, is expected to soon release findings of its investigation on the cause of the radiation leak. And the New Mexico Environment Department is set to begin levying fines against LANL that some lab officials expect could total $10 million or more.  As its report takes shape, the federal board is exploring what role LANL contractors’ profit motive and the rush to meet the deadline imposed by the state Environment Department — a key objective necessary to fully extend its lucrative contract — played in the missteps that caused the leak.,,,

More than three months after the leak, LANL chemist Steve Clemmons compared the ingredients of the drum, labeled Waste Drum 68660, to a database of federal patents and found that together, the drum’s contents match the makeup of patented plastic, water-gel and slurry explosives, according to a memo.  “All of the required components included in the patent claims would be present,” Clemmons wrote in the May 21 memo.
Personnel at WIPP were oblivious to Clemmons’ discovery….

Frustrations over LANL’s reluctance to share what it knew about Waste Drum 68660 had been percolating at WIPP long before the discovery of the memo that suggested the drum contained all the ingredients of a patented plastic explosive.  A May 5 email between WIPP employee James Willison and federal contractor Fran Williams suggested LANL was reluctant to acknowledge the most basic details about what Waste Drum 68660 held. “LANL used a wheat-based kitty litter rather than clay-based kitty litter as a stabilizer,” Willison wrote. “They fessed up after we nailed down the general area.

Excerpts from Patrick Malone, LANL officials downplayed waste’s dangers even after leak, The New Mexican, Dec. 9, 2014

Living with Nuclear Waste: New Mexico

Unusually high levels of radioactive particles were found at an underground nuclear waste site in New Mexico on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2014 in what a spokesman said looked like the first real alarm since the plant opened in 1999.  U.S. officials were testing for radiation in air samples at the site where radioactive waste, such as plutonium used in defense research and nuclear weapon making, is dumped half a mile below ground in an ancient salt formation.

“They (air monitors) have alarmed in the past as a false positive because of malfunctions, or because of fluctuations in levels of radon (a naturally occurring radioactive gas),” Department of Energy spokesman Roger Nelson said.  “But I believe it’s safe to say we’ve never seen a level like we are seeing. We just don’t know if it’s a real event, but it looks like one,” he said.  It was not yet clear what caused the air-monitoring system to indicate that radioactive particles were present at unsafe levels, Nelson said.

No one was underground at the Department of Energy Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, in New Mexico’s south east, when the alarm went off at 11:30 p.m. MST on Friday, and none of the 139 employees working above ground at the facility was exposed to radioactive contaminants, he said.  Workers were asked to shelter where they were until the end of their shifts and were allowed to leave the facility at 5 p.m. local time on Saturday, Nelson said. No air exchange with the surface was occurring after the ventilation system automatically switched to filtration, he said…A different part of the site was evacuated this month after a truck used to haul salt caught fire. Several workers suffered smoke inhalation, an agency statement said.

Possible radiation leak at New Mexico military nuclear waste site, Reuters, Feb. 16, 2014

Nowhere to Go? Nuclear Waste

Federal officials are looking to ship some 3 million gallons of radioactive waste from Washington state to New Mexico, giving the government more flexibility to deal with leaking tanks at Hanford Nuclear Reservation…The Department of Energy said its preferred plan would ultimately dispose of the waste in a massive repository – called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant – near Carlsbad, N.M, where radioactive materials are buried in rooms excavated in vast salt beds nearly a half-mile underground.

The federal proposal was quickly met with criticism from a New Mexico environmental group that said the state permit allowing the government to bury waste at the plant would not allow for shipments from Hanford, the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.  Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said WIPP specifically prohibits waste from Hanford and any proposal to modify permit language in this case would need “strong justification and public input.”  “WIPP has demonstrated success in its handling of defense TRU waste,” Udall said in a statement. “With regard to Hanford waste, I urge all parties involved to exhibit caution and scientific integrity to ensure that DOE is abiding by the law and that the waste classifications are justified.”  The waste near Carlsbad includes such things as clothing, tools and other debris.

The transfer from Washington would target so-called transuranic waste, which is less radioactive than some of the sludge at Hanford, and accounts for a fraction of the roughly 50 million gallons of waste there currently. Federal officials have identified six leaking tanks, and five of the leakers contain transuranic waste, said Tom Fletcher, assistant manager of the tank farms for the Energy Department.  Dave Huizenga, head of the Energy Department’s Environmental Management program, said the transfer would not impact the safe operations of the New Mexico facility.  “This alternative, if selected for implementation in a record of decision, could enable the Department to reduce potential health and environmental risk in Washington State,” said Huizenga.

Don Hancock, of the Albuquerque-based watchdog group Southwest Research and Information opposing the transfer to New Mexico, said this is not the first time DOE has proposed bringing more waste to the plant near Carlsbad.  “This is a bad, old idea that’s been uniformly rejected on a bipartisan basis by politicians when it came up in the past, and it’s been strongly opposed by citizen groups like mine and others,” Hancock said. “It’s also clear that it’s illegal.”

Disposal operations near Carlsbad began in March 1999. Since then, more than 85,000 cubic meters of waste have been shipped to WIPP from a dozen sites around the country.  Any additional waste from Hanford would have to be analyzed to ensure it could be stored at the site because a permit issued by the New Mexico Environment Department dictates what kinds of waste and the volumes that can be stored there…

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says the proposal is a good start in the process of getting rid of Hanford’s waste… He also said a system is in place to treat the groundwater should contamination from the leaks reach it.  In the meantime, Inslee plans to push Congress to fully fund this proposal, saying “every single dollar of it is justified.”

South-central Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation is home to 177 underground tanks, which hold toxic and radioactive waste left from decades of plutonium production for the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal…In a letter to Inslee, the Department of Energy estimated it will have to eliminate $92 million for its Office of River Protection, which oversees efforts to empty the tanks and build a plant to treat the waste. The cuts will result in furloughs or layoffs impacting about 2,800 contract workers, the agency said…. [Currently]The U.S. government spends some $2 billion each year on cleanup at Hanford – one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally….

Excerpts, Austin Reed Federal proposal for nuclear waste problem in Washington State, Associated Press, Mar. 8, 2013