In 1979, US Congress authorized the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, in which storage vaults would be formed from ancient salt beds near Carlsbad more than 2,000 feet below the surface. Thirty-five years and several billion dollars later, WIPP is still the nation’s only deep geologic repository for nuclear waste.
Regular followers of the Cumbria Trust posts will know that WIPP was shut down indefinitely by two separate accidents in February, a truck fire underground and a radiation leak.
A series of experiments designed to determine whether WIPP could expand its mission to accept “hotter” waste have been put on hold. All shipments to WIPP have been halted, and the WIPP contractor has said it could be at least three years before the plant reopens.
WIPP took decades of planning and some $2.5 billion to open, and it’s the closest the country has ever come to an answer to its legacy of defence nuclear waste, even in part.
The leftovers of nuclear bomb production range from low-level to high-level waste and spent fuel, with something called “transuranic” waste in the middle – and that’s what WIPP was built to hold. Often called “TRU” waste, the drums of contaminated boots and gloves, machinery and sludge, are generally more radioactive than low-level waste but not as hot, in the thermal sense, as high-level waste or spent fuel.
The investigation into what happened underground on Valentine’s Day, what caused a hot reaction inside at least one Los Alamos drum, has so far hinged on the idea that incompatible materials were inappropriately mixed at that lab.
“When you think about Los Alamos as being the pre-eminent institution in terms of knowledge of explosives, that something like this would slip through their fingers really indicates several levels of breakdown, from the federal government to the contractors managing the labs,” said Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, who during the 1990s coordinated the Energy Department’s nuclear material strategic planning.
Whatever the exact cause turns out to be – an explosive mix of nitrates and organic matter such as kitty litter or neutralizing agents, or something else altogether – WIPP, DOE and its contractors will not escape unscathed. Two accident investigation reports done so far have cited dozens of systemic failures in oversight and safety and maintenance programs at the facility.
“I think that we’re really looking at an inexorable reality of having to shift toward safe surface storage containment,” said Alvarez. “Probably (the waste at sites around the country) is going to have to stay where it is in containers that can hold up for a long period of time while we sort this out. I’m afraid that’s the reality.”
DOE officials are planning for WIPP’s recovery even as the investigation plods on, according to Heaton. And WIPP’s supporters in Carlsbad want to see the facility reopened. “There is no reason in our minds that it cannot be put into premier condition,” Heaton said.
Both Idaho and Savannah River plan to continue remediating and packaging waste in the meantime, according to local observers.
At Savannah River, “If WIPP doesn’t reopen, it’s going to have a dual impact on packaged waste and the plutonium disposition program,” Clements said. “All DOE’s eggs are in the basket that WIPP is going to be reopened.”
Source: Albuquerque Journal