Nuclear waste repository the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant gradually reduced the amount of nuclear waste received and emplaced for disposal in its underground salt deposit during the last three months as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to spread throughout the country and world leading to the disruption of operations at government facilities.
As of March 22, WIPP received four shipments during that month.
Shipments were also interrupted by a maintenance outage from Feb. 16 to March 14.
Ten shipments were received during February, and 191 containers of waste were emplaced.
In January, 24 shipments were received, and 283 containers were emplaced.
Donavan Mager, spokesman for Nuclear Waste Partnership – the Department of Energy-hired contractor to oversee the facility’s day-to-day operations – said the reduction in operations was in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
He said a “ramp down” of activities at the site would be complete by April 1 but was unsure how long it would last as the virus continued to spread, and public officials called for “social distancing” and on workers to work from home when possible.
Waste was being accepted and emplaced on a “limited” basis, Mager said, in support the DOE’s mission to clean up nuclear waste from national laboratories throughout the U.S.
It was unclear if WIPP’s mining operations continued during the “ramp down,” as the eighth and final panel was being mined in the underground.
As of March 30, the New Mexico Department of Health reported 44 new positive cases of COVID-19, bringing the total to 281.
There were four total cases in Eddy County, including New Mexico’s first death from the disease, and two cases in Lea County.
WIPP is located about 30 miles east of Carlsbad, near the Eddy-Lea county line.
“In response to the current situation regarding COVID-19, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) continues a safe and orderly ramp down of operations to a level that will still ensure continuity of essential mission critical operations,” Mager said.
“This direction aligns with reductions that have already been planned and implemented over the past week.”
Employees able to work remotely were sent home to do so, with some “essential” staff remaining at the WIPP site, Mager said, to perform “mission-critical” activities.
“This action is being taken out of an abundance of caution for the safety of employees and the community,” he said.
“All activities that can be performed remotely are being conducted through telework. Employees at the site are performing essential mission-critical activities are working in compliance with CDC, DOE and New Mexico Department of Health guidelines.
“The Carlsbad Field Office and its primary contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, will continue to monitor the situation and respond accordingly.”
Amid the outbreak, the DOE said it was working closely with the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure the safety of its workers across the nation.
“DOE is coordinating closely with the White House and our interagency partners in the unified response to the Coronavirus. We have been in communication with our employees across the country throughout this event and have encouraged them to take appropriate precautions and follow CDC guidance,” read a statement from the DOE.
“DOE leadership will be issuing further guidance as the situation evolves.”
In New Mexico, Sandia National Laboratories closed two buildings in Albuquerque after employees tested positive for the virus.
The buildings were to be disinfected and the workers who tested positive were quarantined, before reopening.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich called on President Donald Trump to work with New Mexico’s national laboratories, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories on solutions to the pandemic.
He pointed to Sandia’s efforts to track anthrax spores after mail attacks were reported in 2001, and its work to map the Ebola outbreak in 2014 in West Africa.
Los Alamos, Heinrich said, ran disease models to predict the 2003 spread of SARS, and already began mapping the spread of coronavirus during the recent health crisis.
“Our national labs employ some of the best and brightest minds on Earth, and they have played a leading role in finding solutions to past public health crises,” Heinrich said in a statement.
“I urge President Trump to put our national labs to work once again in helping us better understand the challenges we are facing and engineering lifesaving solutions.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
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