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WIPP: DOE’s four goals for the next five years

The entrance to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear waste repository outside Carlsbad. (WIPP)

Since its opening in 1999, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico accepted about 12,500 shipments of transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste to be permanently disposed of in a vast underground salt deposit 2,150 feet underground.

Officials expected the facility to continue accepting waste until at least 2050, part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s effort to clean up nuclear waste left over from the Cold War.

To that end, Acting Manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO) Kirk Lachman and his team published a strategic plan to guide the facility through the next five years to 2024.

Lachman said the plan was essential for the DOE to continue supporting WIPP’s “critical missions” related to updating infrastructure, increasing emplacement operations and ensuring working safety.

“Our ability to support these critical missions over the next five years and beyond is contingent on repairing, refurbishing, and recapitalizing aged and failing infrastructure at the WIPP facility, as well as modernizing the WIPP facility,” he said.

Mark Pearcy, Underground Operations Manager, center, talks about the facility during a media tour at 2,150 feet below the surface at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal )

“WIPP is extremely fortunate to have substantial support at all levels of government; from our local leaders in Carlsbad, to our State elected leaders, to our national elected leaders. WIPP is in the enviable position of having exceptionally strong community support.”

Public hearings on the plan were recently held in Santa Fe and Carlsbad to solicit public comments on the direction of WIPP into the future.

Here are the four main goals outlined in the plan.

Expanding the mission

The plan called for ongoing additions to WIPP’s repository plan, mining out more panels to achieve WIPP’s mission of disposing 6.2 million cubic feet of waste, as prescribed in the federal WIPP Land Withdrawal Act (LWA).

The achieve this goal, WIPP plans to submit re-certification documents for its hazardous waste permit in 2019, which occurs every 10 years, along with five-year submissions for federal compliance to the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA).

Ground control will be prioritized as WIPP withdraws from the south end of the repository, where the 2014 release occurred.

Panels 3, 4, 5 and 6 will be permanently closed.

The CBFO said it believed new panels will be a safer and more cost-effective alternative to continue maintaining contaminated areas in the south end.

During the ongoing work, WIPP officials intend to hold more public stakeholder meetings.

Shipments

WIPP officials expected to receive 400 waste shipments in 2020, with an increase to 440 in 2021, and just 364 in 2022.

But shipments will see a significant increase to 616 in 2023 and 2024.

Los Alamos waste management staffers prepare a waste shipment for transport to WIPP. (Department Of Energy)

To meet these shipment goals safely, the plan calls for personnel to re-evaluate about 25,000 containers of TRU waste stored at generators sites across the DOE complex to follow new federal guidelines implemented in 2016.

Some waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory is being stored temporarily at the Waste Control Specialists facility in Andrews, Texas and the CBFO planned to work with Texas regulators on plans to permanently dispose of the waste at WIPP.

“In the near term, the goal will be to coordinate generator site waste packaging and transportation activities closely with site operations in order to maintain shipment rates that are consistent with WIPP site waste emplacement rates,” read the plan.

Improve safety

In February 2014, an incorrectly packaged drum of waste caught fire in the underground, releasing some radiation and leading to a three-year cease in most of WIPP’s operations.

Weaknesses in WIPP’s safety management programs were blamed as a primary cause of the incident.

To better prevent future releases and ensure the safety of worker and the surrounding community, the CBFO planned to update and improve its safety guidelines and oversight related to radiological protection, hazardous waste management, surveillance, operational safety, training and emergency preparations.

Over the next five years, the plan was to continue following these updated guidelines, which the CBFO reported better conform to federal law.

Modernize infrastructure

Ventilation system: The facility recently embarked on a multi-million-dollar project to rebuild the ventilation system and more than triple airflow from 170,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm) to 540,000 cfm.

The Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System began construction last year under a $135 million contract and an associated utility shaft recently awarded a $75 million contract for its construction. The plan was for both to be competed by 2022.

Fire system: The system that supplies water to WIPP for fire suppression pumps from an on-site, 180,000-gallon tank, is degraded, read the plan, but remains operable. The CBFO intended to seek designs and installation services to upgrade the water supply structures and portions of the pipeline loop, along with the fire suppression system and alarms.

Hoists: WIPP’s salt and waste hoists, elevators that lift mined salt out of the underground and nuclear waste into the underground are aging and controllers and other pieces will be upgraded.

Compressed air system: Air compressors are using on the surface and in the underground to close and open airlock doors. The existing air compressors are so old today that replacement parts are unavailable, and the CBFO intends to design, build and install new compressors to distribute plant air throughout the WIPP site.

Electrical substations: The CBFO expects to design and install replacements for seven electrical substations that outlived their designed lifespans.

Lightning array: Upgrades for WIPP’s lightning arrays, umbrella-like devices that ground lightning strikes should they occur at the site, was planned after the system was evaluated and deemed in need of repair.

Information technology: The IT system runs at a maximum capacity of 1 giga bite per second (Gbit/s), with a maximum length of 2,000 feet. Fiver optic cabling will be added to support speeds 100 times faster than the current system.

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