CARLSBAD – Miners began drilling into the rock salt at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s underground facility, the first time that work has commenced to expand WIPP’s emplacement panels since the nuclear waste repository was shut down in 2014.
A continuous mining machine made its first cut into the salt last week where Panel 8 was started in late 2013.
In February 2014, the repository was shuttered after a incorrectly packed drum of transuranic waste ruptured and released radiation into WIPP’s underground mine.
Recovery efforts took place in the following years, and WIPP reopened in January 2017, resuming shipments of transuranic waste from national laboratories across the country in the following April.
The plant recently announced its first operational pause for maintenance work since the incident, and officials hope the outage and resumption of mining mark a return to normal operations at WIPP.
“Resuming mining operations will allow us to continue fully restoring WIPP and fulfilling our important mission of providing a transuranic waste solution for the (Department of Energy) complex,” said DOE Carlsbad Field Office Manager Todd Shrader.
“As with the restart of waste emplacement operations last year, WIPP will take a slow, deliberate approach to mining, keeping safety as a core value.”
Mining of Panel 8, the last of eight panels used to permanently hold the waste, mostly nondefense related cloth materials used during nuclear research, began in 2013 but was halted due to the release and fire.
Last week, the facility announced Panel 8 is expected to be fully mined by 2020.
More than 112,000 tons of salt are planned to be removed from the underground to complete the panel, which will contain seven rooms for disposal.
Each room was estimated at 300 feet long, 33 feet wide and 13 feet high, records show.
The machine used to drill into the salt, a continuous miner, cuts into the rock with a rotating drum which can be elevated and lowered as needed.
From behind the cutting head, a miner operates the machine remotely.
Up to 10 tons of salt can be mined per minute.
Gathering arms move the salt onto a belt, which carries the powder onto a truck to be used somewhere else in the underground or brought to a hoist which lifts it to the surface and onto a salt tailing pile.
Once a panel is completed, it immediately begins its gradual collapse as the salt slowly falls in.
This is the process that encases the waste in the underground deposit.
It’s also why planning is essential, and why panels are mined bigger than needed.
“Mining at WIPP is timed so that a panel is only ready when it is needed for waste emplacement. This is because the natural movement of salt causes mined openings to close,” read a statement from WIPP officials. “This is the salt rock behavior that will eventually permanently encapsulate the waste.”
WIPP: Mining starts on final underground panel