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WIPP official defends plant safety plans

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

A top Waste Isolation Pilot Plant official said he believes new procedures in place would have detected a drum filled with radioactive materials that ruptured earlier this month at Idaho’s Radioactive Waste Management Complex before it left the facility for emplacement at the deep geologic repository in southeast New Mexico.

Todd Shrader, manager of WIPP’s Department of Energy field office in Carlsbad, said the drum that ruptured due to an exothermic event “not that dissimilar from the one we had here” was in the very beginning stages of characterization.

“The barrier we have put in would have caught that issue up there,” Shrader said during a public meeting last week in Carlsbad.

“We feel very confident that the procedures and controls we put in after our events will prevent us receiving waste like that here without it being remediated and made safe before it was shipped to us.”

In February 2014, a waste-laden drum shipped to the facility from Los Alamos National Laboratory ruptured after it was already emplaced, contaminating the underground and leading to a nearly three-year closure of the facility.

The culprit was the organic cat litter meant to stabilize the radioactive materials inside the drum but instead caused a chemical reaction that led to the release.

The event resulted in a massive overhaul of the processes involved in certifying waste that is to come to WIPP is safe.

Shrader said the contents of the Idaho drum, which likely originated from the Rocky Flats Plant in the 1960s, recently had been removed to determine exactly what was inside.

After the “radioactive sludge” was returned to the barrel and resealed, elevated temperatures within the barrel caused the drum to open.

It is not yet known what caused the heat-producing reaction.

Fluor Idaho, the contractor that runs the facility, said no one was injured and no contamination was detected outside the building.

While the drum may end up at WIPP, Shrader emphasized there is a long process ahead before it is certified to be shipped to the facility.

“It was nowhere close to that,” he said in an interview Friday, adding the waste still needed to be fully characterized, treated and certified before shipping to WIPP.

WIPP is receiving five to six shipments a week from Idaho, Shrader said, but once the news broke of the release, shipments and emplacements of waste from the lab stopped.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we said let’s stop for just a second, take a pause and make sure we are comfortable the waste we’re receiving is not the same as the waste up there,” Shrader said.

Two shipments were on the road to WIPP, and containers were waiting onsite to be disposed of.

Shrader said they were able to determine the waste onsite, and on its way, was from a different waste stream than the reactive drum up in Idaho.

By the Friday after the incident, Shrader said the pause was lifted and processing and shipments of the Idaho waste resumed.

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