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Los Alamos resumes waste shipments to WIPP

SANTA FE – Drums of radioactive waste packaged at Los Alamos National Laboratory have been shipped to the nation’s nuclear waste storage facility at Carlsbad for the first time since 2014.

A nuclear safety oversight board’s report says a small shipment, just six drums, went from Los Alamos to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in mid-November.

In February 2014, a drum improperly packed with a combustible mix at Los Alamos burst at WIPP, causing radioactive contamination and a costly shutdown. WIPP resumed operations nearly three years later, in January 2017, and only began taking new waste shipments in April.

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Los Alamos National Laboratory has resumed shipments of transuranic waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation\’s only underground nuclear waste repository, near Carlsbad. A drum improperly packed at Los Alamos burst in 2014, causing contamination that shut down WIPP. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan) Susan Montoya Bryan

A report posted by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board says the six drums sent in November represent “the first shipment from LANL since WIPP resumed waste receipt operations.”

“This is an important milestone for the Lab,” said a LANL spokesman via email. “We appreciate the hard work and dedication of our colleagues at WIPP in their efforts to re-open WIPP and help us work through the process of resuming TRU waste shipments.”

The shipments apparently still face obstacles. LANL personnel wanted to send more, the DNFSB report states, but “that effort was challenged with issues concerning safeguards, procedures, and unfavorable weather conditions.”

“In particular, weather restrictions related to temperature and wind speed significantly constrain the use of the mobile loading unit in LANL’s climate,” the DNFSB said. The report notes that reestablishing “a reliable transuranic waste shipping capability remains essential to risk reductions activities across LANL.”

“For example, the limited availability of safety controls for the above ground inventory means that disposition to WIPP is the primary risk-reduction method for Area G,” a 63-acre disposal area at LANL with above-ground drums and underground waste, the board’s report said.

LANL was in the middle of a “campaign” to move thousands of radioactive waste drums to WIPP when the 2014 accident took place. The accident was among the reasons the U.S. Department of Energy gave LANL contractor Los Alamos National Security LLC unsatisfactory performance reviews, leading to rebidding the $2.2 billion operating annual contract that now runs out in October 2018.

Greg Mello, of the Los Alamos Study Group research organization, said Friday, “We’re glad shipments have resumed to WIPP, but we are concerned about the overall waste management capability at LANL and whether it can handle everything that they’re trying to do,” including oprerations producing new waste streams included the expected production of plutonium “pits” for nuclear weapons.

The Los Alamos drum breached at WIPP because wheat-based kitty litter was used as a desiccant instead of clay-based litter. A investigation blamed the error on a typo.

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