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WIPP ‘extremely close’ to reopening, manager says

LAS CRUCES – A U.S. Department of Energy field office manager on Thursday said WIPP is “extremely close” to reopening nearly three years after a radiation accident forced closure of the nuclear waste repository.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeast New Mexico has been working to recover from an accident in February 2014 in which a drum of nuclear waste overheated and burst underground, contaminating a large swath of the salt mine repository.

Facility managers must take dozens of corrective actions in response to a DOE operational readiness review, which found issues in emergency management, ground control, radiation protection of workers and oversight. The issues must be corrected before the facility begins receiving waste from the nation’s nuclear sites.

Speaking at a town hall meeting, DOE Carlsbad Field Office Manager Todd Shrader said WIPP workers have been working seven days a week and performed a “dry run” this week to practice emplacing waste.

“It means we are extremely close,” Shrader said. “We have been saying for six months that our goal is to open in December. If it takes a little bit longer, that’s OK, but we’re at the end state of the readiness process now.”

The readiness review by DOE inspectors identified 21 issues that needed to be corrected. Six of those have been addressed and approved by DOE, according to Phil Breidenbach, manager of WIPP contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership. He said the rest of the issues should be taken care of “over the next few days.”

The review also listed 15 findings that DOE said can be addressed after WIPP resumes taking waste.

There have been multiple challenges in the cleanup.

Work has been slowed by limited ventilation underground, since air moving in and out of the radiologically contaminated mine must be filtered. Workers must wear cumbersome protective gear and respirators to work in contaminated areas, including Panel 7 where waste will be stacked when WIPP reopens.

And it has been a challenge to keep up with underground maintenance, especially of the salt ceiling that must be constantly bolted back to prevent dangerous roof collapses of the kind that have dogged the facility this year.

Breidenbach said workers have doubled their rate of roof bolting over the past two months, and four waste storage rooms in Panel 7 are “stabilized.”

The salt is destined to “creep” and encapsulate the waste permanently once WIPP is full and permanently sealed.

The drum of defense-related nuclear waste that burst underground was improperly packaged at Los Alamos National Laboratory and shipped to WIPP for disposal. LANL must complete its own corrective actions before it can begin sending waste to WIPP again.

The New Mexico Environment Department must sign off before WIPP can reopen. Six state inspectors completed their own review of WIPP operations last week, the results of which have not been made public.

The state “performed a very thorough inspection above ground and below ground,” Breidenbach said. “They found some areas for us to improve but overall they were very complimentary of the progress they saw. We need their authorization… we expect to get that shortly.”