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Maintenance pause is completed at WIPP

Shipments and disposal of nuclear waste resumed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant after a two-month pause in the repository’s primary operations to allow personnel to complete several maintenance projects underground and on the surface.

WIPP completed 97 projects during the maintenance outage which ran from Feb. 15 to April 15, upgrading infrastructure throughout the facility.

The work involved mine operations, waste handling, hoisting, ground control, safety and engineering, and the break included a site-wide power outage to allow electrical work to be completed safely.

An outage is held each year for major projects that can’t be performed alongside waste emplacement, and routine preventive maintenance is conducted throughout the year.

Reinhard Knerr, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office said WIPP will resume accepting shipments of low-level transuranic waste from DOE sites around the country and will continue to emplace the waste for final disposal in WIPP’s underground mine.

Transuranic waste consists of clothing and equipment radiated during nuclear operations and is permanently entombed in a salt deposit more than 2,000 feet underground at the WIPP.

WIPP returned to accepting five shipments per week of transuranic waste and plans to move toward 10 shipments weekly as the pandemic subsides.

As of the end of March, WIPP had accepted 12,845 shipments since it began operations in 1999.

“As those sites continue to make substantial progress in their cleanup missions, WIPP looks forward to continuing to safely accept these shipments and properly dispose of the waste,” Knerr said.

During the outage, inspections, maintenance and repairs to various systems at WIPP’s waste handling buildings were completed, including four processing docks and four overhead cranes.

Workers also replaced a battery exhaust fan in the site’s waste handling building.

The largest project during the outage saw crews remove and upgrade 170 feet of underground rails used to transport pallets carrying waste to or from the waste hoist.

Salt movement caused the ground below the rails to heave, making the rails unleveled. To solve this issue, the rails were removed, and a mining machine dug into the salt to level the floor. Gravel ballast and mined salt were added for a base layer and the rails and metal plates were reinstalled.

Another major project saw a metal bulkhead used to control airflow removed, the salt floor leveled, and a new bulkhead installed. Inspections were done for nine airflow bulkheads in total.

On the surface, computer system and electronics for waste container transporters were upgraded.

Mars Dukes, WIPP’s waste handling manager said waste handling operations were improved by the work and would increase WIPP’s ability to meet the growing shipping schedule.

Sean Dunagan, president of WIPP’s primary operations contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership said the outage was successful and commended workers.

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