Nuclear waste managers said shipments of waste to a federal repository near Carlsbad were increased in late 2022 and early 2023 as workers moved out of an area contaminated by a radiological release.
The seventh disposal panel at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant was contaminated in 2014 after a drum of waste ruptured, leading to a three-year pause of underground emplacement and mining activities.
This delayed filling Panel 7, which remained contaminated by radioactivity which restricted operations even after the facility was reopened in 2017.
That panel was recently filled and sealed, allowing workers to move into Panel 8 which was not contaminated, and continue disposing of nuclear waste.
At WIPP, transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste is trucked into the site from U.S. Department of Energy facilities throughout the U.S. and buried permanently in a mined salt deposit about 2,000 feet underground in an area about 30 miles east of Carlsbad.
Officials at WIPP touted a “successful seven-week” stretch via a Tuesday announcement, of increased waste shipments accepted by the repository, with 70 shipments brought in between Nov. 20, 2022, and Jan. 1, since Panel 8 was opened.
The week of Nov. 20, 2022 saw six shipments accepted, similar to the rate reported throughout last year, and the DOE reported weather delays led to a decrease of just two shipments the following week.
But the week of Dec. 4 saw 19 shipments accepted by WIPP, records show, and after a decline to five shipments the week of Dec. 11, shipments ramped back up to 18 for the week of Dec. 18.
The DOE reported 11 and nine shipments in the weeks of Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, respectively.
WIPP’s goal this year, according to the DOE, is to accept 17 shipments per week, after shipments dropped to a weekly average of five shipments since the COVID-19 health crisis began in March 2020.
Sean Dunagan, president of Nuclear Waste Partnership – the DOE-hired contractor running WIPP’s daily operations – attributed the increase to the closure of Panel 7, and a return to “normal” operations.
“The return to normal emplacement activities has allowed us to increase waste handling efficiencies,” he said. “Crews recently achieved over a 50 percent increase in our underground waste emplacement capacity. This has led to an increased WIPP capacity in accepting shipments and will lead to cleaning up generator sites quicker.”
Of the 70 shipments received in recent weeks, 55 came from Idaho National Laboratory – WIPP’s biggest shipper under a settlement agreement between the federal government and the State of Idaho.
Another 14 came from Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico, and one shipment was from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
“It is our goal to continue steady, safe and compliant operations so we can return consistently to those levels in the very near future,” Dunagan said.
Shipments of out-of-state waste to WIPP in southeast New Mexico were criticized by New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary James Kenney, as the NMED was at work finalized a renewal of the DOE’s 10-year permit to operate WIPP.
The draft permit released in December 2022 included, among other altered provisions, language requiring the DOE to “prioritize” waste from New Mexico facilities, chiefly legacy waste at Los Alamos leftover from the Cold War.
A public comment period on the permit renewal was opened through Feb. 18, with a final decision expected by the end of the year.
The lab could also soon generate more new waste as the DOE plans to increase the production of plutonium pits, the triggers of nuclear warheads, at Los Alamos up to 30 pits a year by 2026.
“We want to make sure we preserve enough space at WIPP for the entirety of New Mexico’s legacy waste,” Kenney said.
He was critical of the DOE’s agreements to prioritize waste from other states, like the Department’s 1995 agreement with Idaho.
Since WIPP began disposal operations in 1999, about half the waste came from Idaho – 6,784 of the total 13,318 shipments as of Jan. 14, DOE records show.
About 11 percent, or a combined 1,593 shipments, came from New Mexico’s Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories throughout WIPP’s lifetime.
“We want to make sure there’s accountability for all permittees, including for New Mexico’s waste which has clearly been devalued,” Kenney said. “This permit right sizes the management of DOE’s operations in New Mexico to allow for a priority for us.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.