WIPP anticipates reopening by end of year

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant workers earlier this year practice moving simulated waste drums underground during a training session during "cold operations," a practice run for resuming waste emplacement. (Source: WIPP)

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant workers earlier this year practice moving simulated waste drums underground during a training session during “cold operations,” a practice run for resuming waste emplacement. (Source: WIPP)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Managers of a closed southeast New Mexico nuclear waste repository say the site remains on track to reopen by year’s end after the U.S. Department of Energy identified a few dozen issues that need to be addressed.

Managers of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad said Wednesday that DOE briefed them on the results of an “operational readiness review” meant to determine whether WIPP is ready to receive drums of waste, nearly three years after one drum overheated and burst, releasing radiation into the underground.

The review identified 21 issues that will need to be resolved before WIPP can dispose of waste in its underground chambers, carved from salt beds more than 2,000 feet below the surface. Another 15 issues will need to be addressed but can be dealt with as waste emplacement gets underway.

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WIPP’s statement did not specify the nature of the issues nor how long it will take managers to implement corrective actions.

This barrel containing radioactive waste blew up inside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in February 2014, forcing the shutdown of the nuclear waste storage site. (Source: U.S. Department of Energy)

This barrel containing radioactive waste blew up inside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in February 2014, forcing the shutdown of the nuclear waste storage site. (Source: U.S. Department of Energy)

But DOE Carlsbad Field Office Manager Todd Shrader indicated in the statement that reopening “before the end of December is still our goal.”

“But we will take the time necessary to ensure it can be done safely,” he said.

In February 2014, a fire ignited on a salt haul truck underground and WIPP was forced to close down. Nine days later, in an unrelated accident, a drum of nuclear waste burst, contaminating a large swath of the mine.

WIPP has been working to recover the facility ever since. Containers of waste related to the nation’s nuclear weapons production have been waiting at sites around the country to be sent to WIPP for final disposal.

Once WIPP begins taking waste drums underground, it is likely to do so very slowly, according to site managers.

The facility has struggled to keep up with maintenance of the underground due to the radiological contamination; the fact that workers must wear protective clothing and respirators; and limited ventilation underground thanks to an air filtration system that has been in place since the accident.

Roof collapses underground have led to plans to close off the far south end of the mine and have resulted in restricted or prohibited access to rooms where waste was going to be placed.

“When they do reopen it’s not going to be at the same pace as when they shut down,” Butch Tongate, New Mexico Environment Secretary, told the Journal last week. “It will be step by step, carefully reviewing operations, making sure that training has addressed all the issues.”

The state Environment Department will also complete a review ensuring that WIPP has addressed all its required corrective actions before it signs off on WIPP’s reopening.

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