SANTA FE – Workers have sealed off portions of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant where hundreds 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 at the Roundhouse today that as of Friday night, initial closure of WIPP’s panel 6 and room 7 of panel was completed.
He called the step “a major milestone” as WIPP tries to recover from the Feburary 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,” said Flynn.
Stacks of waste containers at WIPP stand floor to ceiling in rooms mined from ancient salt beds 2,150 feet underground outside Carlsbad, huge panels that contain seven rooms each.
Flynn said there are about 420 containers underground with waste akin to that packed in the drum of Los Alamos waste that breached a year ago in the various rooms of Panel 6 and in Room 7 of Panel 7. The areas needed to be closed to “to prevent additional releases,” Flynn said.
NMED ordered WIPP to seal off Panel 6 and Room 7 of Panel 7 in an administrative order last May.
WIPP responded with a plan to isolate the containers bearing a volatile mix of nitrate salts and organic kitty 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, lastly, 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.
NMED has said a more permanent closure – sealing off the panels with an explosion isolation wall, for example – will require a permit modification, which is a public process.
Nuclear Waste Partnership, the site contractor, had expected to close Panel 6 before the end of last year and Room 7 of Panel 7 by early this year. But radiological contamination, limitations on the number of workers and equipment that can be used due to poor ventilation underground and the months of missed maintenance have slowed the effort.
Flynn told the Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee that while the federal Department of Energy 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.