Federal nuclear waste managers do not expect anyone to lose their job at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant as a new contractor was poised to take over operations at the repository near Carlsbad.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Energy announced Tularosa Basin Range Services of Reston, Virginia, a subsidiary of Bechtel National, was selected as the contractor to replace Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) which ran the WIPP site since 2012.
The $3 billion contract had an initial guaranteed timeframe of four years, with six one-year extensions for a total of potentially 10 years until it would need to be renewed.
Nuclear Waste Partnership’s contract expires Sept. 30, and DOE officials said most employees from that company were not expected to be terminated during the transition to Bechtel’s leadership, and that workforce impacts would be “minimal.”
“DOE does not anticipate workforce reductions as a result of this contract award,” said Tim Runyon, spokesman for the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office. “DOE expects minimal impacts to Incumbent WIPP M&O Employees.”
Runyon said the award would be followed by a 10-day period to allow the four other companies that bid on the contract to file any protests.
After that, there was a planned 90-day transition to the new contractor, meaning Bechtel could take control of the WIPP site by the end of the year.
He said “adjustments” to contract periods could be made to accommodate the transition.
Nuclear waste site has multiple projects ongoing amid transition
NWP will assist the DOE during the transition, getting the new contractor up to speed on several key projects ongoing at the site.
A rebuild of WIPP’s ventilation system, expected to cost almost $500 million, was hoped to be complete by 2026, along with a fifth air intake shaft to improve airflow in the underground.
Meanwhile, an eighth panel for disposal of nuclear waste was being mined – the final panel permitted by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED).
The DOE’s proposed permit renewal application being considered by NMED for another 10 years of operations included language to allow for two more panels to replace space lost in a 2014 accidental radiological release that halted waste disposal and mining for three years.
The renewal application notably did not include language conveying a closure date of the site – the previous permit set closure for 2024 – as DOE officials contended WIPP could stay open as long as was needed to dispose of the 6.2 million cubic feet capacity specified by federal law.
Bechtel will oversee these and all of WIPP’s other capital projects and regulatory processes as the primary operations contractor of the site.
That also includes work to determine if waste meets required criteria for disposal at WIPP, transporting the waste to the site, and daily operations of the repository.
At WIPP, transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste made up of irradiated clothing materials and equipment is brought from DOE facilities throughout the U.S. and buried in a salt deposit about 2,000 feet underground for permanent disposal.
“NWP will participate in the transition and DOE will provide oversight through a transition team that will be put in place to ensure that contract objectives can be met with the new contractor team and that there is a smooth transition of responsibilities between management and operations contractors,” Runyon said.
As for the six, one-year extension options, Runyon said they would be considered annually.
“The extension of the contract to include option years will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, based on contractor performance, at the time of the extension,” he said.
In a statement from Bechtel spokesman Fred DeSousa, he expressed the company’s desire to be part of the Carlsbad community while fulfilling the mission of disposing of the nation’s nuclear waste.
“The mission to safely dispose of defense-related nuclear waste is vitally important for protecting people and the planet,” read the statement. “We’re honored to be entrusted with this mission and look forward to joining the WIPP team and the Carlsbad community.”
Radiation release, COVID-19 mars past contract
During it’s 10 years running the WIPP site, NWP saw some struggles in fulfilling that mission, with most of its deficiencies discovered by the DOE tied to the 2014 event.
In Fiscal Year 2014, records show NWP earned just about half of its performance-based fee available from the DOE, which cited concerns related to the contractors preparedness for emergencies, regulatory compliance at protocols for radiation safety.
There were also concerns expressed in the DOE’s annual performance evaluation of NWP for the loss of available space and the facility’s availability for disposal starting in February 2014 when the incident occurred.
Things began to look up in the following years as the contractor earned about 74 percent of the available fee for FY 2015, and 81 percent in FY 2016 – years when waste was not being emplaced as the facility recovered from the release.
In Fiscal Year 2017, the year the facility reopened and waste shipments resumed in April 2017, NWP earned 89 percent of its fee with the DOE commending the contractor for responding to its deemed deficiencies and ultimately resuming WIPP’s primary operations.
That percentage declined gradually in subsequent fiscal years to 81 percent in FY 2018, 76 percent in FY 2019, 65 percent in FY 2020 and 62 percent in FY 2021.
During these years, the DOE reported the contractor struggled to complete large capital projects, ramp up shipments, and grappled with rising COVID-19 infections and associated operations pauses at the site.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.