A series of incidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad disrupted shipments of waste to the facility, meaning the facility did not meet goals for the site’s largest active shippers.
In January, Manager of the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office Reinhard Knerr met with lawmakers in Santa Fe, discussing shipment goals for Fiscal Year 2022, running from Oct. 1, 2021, to Sept. 30, 2022.
For WIPP’s largest shipper Idaho National Laboratory, Knerr set a goal of 257 shipments to the WIPP site but only 130 were reported, records show.
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Since WIPP began accepting waste in 1999, Idaho sent a total of 6,716.
For Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico, the second-largest active shipper, Knerr planned for 115 shipments, but DOE records showed 74 to the facility.
Los Alamos is the third largest all-time shipper with 1,545 shipments in WIPP’s lifetime, behind the decommissioned Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site in Denver which sent 2,045 shipments while it was active.
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The next-largest shipper Savannah Rive Site in South Carolina was set for 32 shipments to the WIPP site, but only sent 15 in FY 2022, records show, with a lifetime total of 1,698 shipments.
Donavan Mager, spokesman for Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) – the DOE-hired contractor that leads WIPP’s day-to-day operations – said Los Alamos’ goal was revised earlier this year to 62 shipments which the lab exceeded by 10 shipments of nuclear waste to the site.
“Shipment goals are based on projected available waste from generator sites, projected maintenance outages and projected weather delays for the upcoming year,” he said. “In the case of last year we experienced more periods where we could not ship than were expected when the goals were established.”
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Mager said this was because of WIPP and its generator sites seeing more interruptions in waste streams than anticipated, due largely, he said, to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that left resources like personnel at both the WIPP site and the labs reduced.
“One of the primary reasons for reduced number of shipments was the continuing COVID pandemic,” he said. “This resulted in the necessary resources not being available to support shipments at both generator sites and WIPP.”
But also impeding shipments were several “non-conformances,” Mager said, when shipments received were deemed problematic and in violation of disposal requirements.
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This can lead to a suspension of that waste stream or all shipments from a certain generator site.
That’s what happened earlier in August at Idaho National Laboratory when, after a string of incidents at WIPP’s waste handling bay, the lab was forced to pause its waste shipments while the New Mexico Environment Department investigated.
Shipments from Idaho resumed Oct. 7, records show, after being halted for about two months starting Aug. 5.
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“We also experienced a few non-conformances that required shipments to be temporarily suspended, while investigations were conducted,” Mager said.
The problematic shipments from Idaho were found to be contaminated while being processed at WIPP’s waste handling bay, read the October report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which led to an evacuation of the bay and the temporary suspension of handling all shipments by the facility.
Drops of oil were found on the payload of a third Idaho shipment, the report read, and work was paused while it was tested for radioactivity.
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The oil was believed to have come from hydraulic equipment used at the Idaho lab that leaked onto the payload, and no problems with container integrity were found.
“Due to contamination in two shipping containers with compacted waste stream from Idaho National Laboratory (INL), INL management suspended shipments of the same waste stream pending completion of an evaluation of the situation,” read the report.
Multiple maintenance outages were needed this year, Mager said, when WIPP’s waste emplacement operations are paused for projects like ground control to prevent mine collapses, work on hoists that bring waste down into the repository or for improvements to procedures.
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These unexpected pauses in disposal operations also led to less shipments than the facility planned for, he said.
“Additionally, there were several unscheduled maintenance outages that resulted in the temporary suspension of shipments,” Mager said. “WIPP’s primary focus is safety, and we have multiple layers of controls in place to ensure the safety of our workforce, the public and the environment.
“These controls also help ensure that WIPP complies with all applicable regulatory requirements.”
In September, the waste hoist used to lower waste into the underground suspended operations while staff evaluated the hoist’s brake pads, read a report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
While the hoist was not in use, NWP updated technical requirements for the hoist, the report read, and its use resumed Sept. 12.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.