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WIPP operations restart to be delayed

(Albuquerque Journal File Photo)

(Albuquerque Journal File Photo)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Federal officials said Friday that the March 2016 target to resume operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad – despite significant progress – must be pushed back due to “unanticipated issues.”

“Over the past several months a number of additional activities have been identified that need to be added to the project schedule, including safety related activities that are required to be completed prior to resumption of operation,” the Department of Energy said in a news release.

The department said it expects a new resumption of operations date and new cleanup cost estimate – currently at $500 million – to be announced in the fall.

The key remaining issues affecting WIPP’s recovery schedule, according to the department, include the need to:

  • Address the findings and recommendations from the Accident Investigation Boards;
  • Implement the DOE’s more rigorous standards for site specific Documented Safety Analyses;
  • Resolve problems with the contractor’s oversight of the procurement and quality assurance processes for the manufacture and delivery of the Interim Ventilation System.

DOE said it is actively engaged with the contractor to address these issues.

“We are disappointed that we will not meet the original target date … but do not want to lose sight of the substantial progress that has been made in the recovery of the WIPP site,” acting Carlsbad Field Office manager Dana Bryson said in a statement.

In early July, the number of workers able to go underground at Carlsbad’s radioactive waste disposal site rose from 75 to 98 because of the addition of a new evacuation area.

And in late June, workers successfully sealed off portions of the 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, called the 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.

DOE tried to determine if there were “efficiencies that could be found to safely maintain the current schedule,” but it was determined the schedule for resuming operations must be updated.

“The department is committed to resuming operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant as soon as it is safe to do so,” Bryson said. “In light of the safety-related activities that must be completed before waste emplacement begins, a new target date for the re-start of waste emplacement operations in 2016 must be established.

“We will continue to keep the public informed about our recovery activities,” Bryson said.

WIPP has remained closed since the February 2014 underground fire and a radiation release. Nearly two dozen employees were contaminated with low levels of plutonium and americium.

To keep track of events affecting WIPP, visit

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