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WIPP: Construction coming as operations resume

CARLSBAD – As the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant resumes regular operations after a three-week maintenance outage, facility officials said major infrastructure projects are on the horizon.

There has not been any major construction at WIPP in the past 30 years, said Bruce Covert, president of Nuclear Waste Partnership – the contractor hired by the U.S. Department of Energy to oversee daily WIPP operations.

“We’ve been busy,” Covert said. “Construction is new to WIPP. … We’re looking for more skill sets to bring to the facility.”

His comments came during the annual WIPP Legislative Breakfast held Monday at the Hotel Santa Fe, where WIPP officials updated state lawmakers on the year’s progress at the facility.

Covert said capital projects, such as a $171 million rebuild of WIPP’s utility shaft, and a complete remodeling of WIPP’s ventilation system, are essential to maintaining the facility and its mission to clean up the nation’s nuclear waste.

“This is a significant improvement for the WIPP facility in support of DOE’s national mission of nuclear waste cleanup,” said CBFO Manager Todd Shrader. “I want to thank all those who worked so hard to get us to this point.”

But one of the challenges, Covert said, is identifying local contractors to do the work, while many are attracted to more lucrative contracts in the oil and gas industry.

He said NWP has worked to develop relationships with local contractors, so that the money paid for the work can stay in the Carlsbad area.

“What we’re finding is that, during the oil boom, it’s really hard to get people to put bids on your work,” Covert said. “We’re trying to work around that and come up with some strategies. We’re trying to keep it as local as we can.”

Aside from construction projects intended to strengthen WIPP operations in the long term, Covert said short-term efforts like ground control bolting and mining have continued in earnest as Panel 7 – part of which was contaminated in a 2014 incident that led to a three-year shutdown of the facility – is filled with waste and handlers move on to emplacing Panel 8.

“We have no negative feedback on our mining,” Covert said. “Our mining team has really worked hard to get mining back where it needs to be.”

About 7,000 ground control bolts were installed last year, intended to stabilize the salt that WIPP’s underground is made of until it can be allowed to collapse and permanently bury the waste.

“We’re no longer in catch-up mode. We’re in maintenance mode,” Covert said. “We’re maintaining our bolting where it needs to be.”

All that work could lead to an increase in WIPP’s annual acceptance of waste, Covert said.

In 2018, 310 shipments of transuranic (TRU) waste were accepted. This year, Covert said that number could grow to 350.

Meanwhile, mining out the rest of Panel 7 was expected to be completed in 18 months, he said.

But as WIPP continues to function, Anne White, assistant secretary of the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, announced last year a priority to hasten the closure of numerous facilities in the DOE complex.

While WIPP isn’t expected to close soon, Covert said the facility must be prepared to accept more waste from sites as they close.

“We’re not a closure site, but we have to fit in with that vision,” Covert said. “We need to see how this asset … can advance that mission of cleanup.”