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Risky portions of WIPP sealed off

SANTA FE – Workers have sealed off portions of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant where hundreds of drums considered at risk for another radioactive leak are stored at the underground nuclear waste repository.

Ryan Flynn, secretary of the state Environment Department, told a legislative committee Tuesday that as of Friday night, closure of WIPP’s Panel 6 and Room 7 of Panel 7 was complete.

He said isolation of the drums in those areas is “a major milestone” as WIPP tries to recover from the February 2014 leak from a drum of transuranic waste packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

WIPP, which has been closed since the leak, “is really starting to turn a corner,” Flynn said.

Pictured is a steel bulkhead of the sort WIPP will use to initially close Panel 6 and Room 7 of Panel 7. (Courtesy of WIPP)

Pictured is a steel bulkhead of the sort WIPP will use to initially close Panel 6 and Room 7 of Panel 7. (Courtesy of WIPP)

“This milestone illustrates DOE’s commitment to safely recover WIPP in a manner that increases worker safety and protects the public and the environment,” Joe Franco, manager of the federal Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office, said later in a statement. “The DOE and its contractors at WIPP will continue to safely implement the recovery plan as we work toward resuming operations at WIPP.”

Stacks of waste containers at WIPP stand floor to ceiling in underground rooms mined from prehistoric salt beds outside Carlsbad, in huge panels that contain seven rooms each. Flynn said there are about 420 containers underground containing waste with a “similar fingerprint” to that packed in the Los Alamos drum that breached a year ago, contaminating WIPP and forcing its shutdown. The New Mexico Environment Department ordered WIPP to seal off Panel 6 and Room 7 of Panel 7 in an administrative order in May 2014.

WIPP responded with a plan to isolate the containers bearing a volatile mix of nitrate salts and organic cat litter: chain link to block the entrances, brattice cloth to restrict the air flow, mined salt pushed up against both to prevent containers from falling over and, last, a steel bulkhead.

The plan amounts to an “initial,” not permanent, closure, however. Don Hancock, a longtime WIPP watchdog at Albuquerque’s Southwest Research and Information Center, has said the “initial closure is not designed to give 100 percent protection” from a radiation release.

“The bulkhead and brattice cloth should reduce what would come out, but it is not designed as a total or more permanent barrier if there is a roof fall or breach,” Hancock said in March.

The state Environment Department has said a more permanent closure – sealing off the panels with an explosion isolation wall, for example – would require a permit modification, which is a public process. Closure of Panel 6 and Room 7 of Panel 7 has been slowed by radiological contamination, limitations on the number of workers and equipment that can be used due to poor ventilation and the months of missed maintenance.

Flynn told the Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee that although DOE believes WIPP might be able to resume operations in about a year, those projections are optimistic and that near the end of 2016 “is a little more realistic” for WIPP to restart accepting waste generated at government nuclear facilities around the country.

In March, the Department of Energy agreed to fund infrastructure projects in New Mexico worth $73.25 million to resolve fines against WIPP and LANL connected with the 2014 radiation leak.