A walk through both the surface and underground of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant revealed numerous changes going on at the site to support its mission for potentially decades to come.
At WIPP, transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste consisting of clothing materials and equipment irradiated during nuclear activities at Department of Energy sites across the country is permanently disposed of in a salt formation some 2,000 feet beneath surface.
The waste is emplaced in panels mined into the salt formation, which gradually collapse and entomb the waste as salt is believed to be an ideal blocker of radiation.
Workers at WIPP are currently emplacing waste in the seventh of eight panels described in its operation permit, but another two are being designed for future use as space was lost during a 2014 incident when sections of the underground were contaminated by radiation.
The events resulted from a mispackaged drum that ruptured in the underground and led to a three-year pause of WIPP’s waste emplacement activities.
Reinhard Knerr, manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office said these new panels did not mark and expansion of WIPP’s mission, but provided an avenue to meet its statutory requirement to dispose of 6.2 million cubic feet of waste even after space was lost in the 2014 event.
But he said the facility has some preliminary plans to operate until 2050, with the nation’s TRU waste inventory potentially pushing WIPP’s lifetime out to 2070.
To add further to WIPP, Knerr said the DOE would conduct further analysis, collaborate with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), and hold meetings to gauge public opinion.
“It’s not an expansion,” Knerr said of the two added panels. “Until Congress authorizes an increase in that limit, we’re not expanding WIPP. The Department (of Energy) has only made a decision for two replacement panels. We feel we need to get increased stakeholder involvement for further increases.”
On the surface of WIPP
On the Earth’s surface at WIPP, thousands of feet above its core operation of disposing of nuclear waste, the work is all about airflow.
Two major projects were ongoing: a rebuild of the facility’s ventilations system to pull air out and the construction of a utility shaft to bring air into the underground.
Available air in the underground was limited by contamination from the 2014 incident and meant operations below the surface were limited.
When the projects are done, estimated at 2050, the facility will increase its airflow from about 170,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm) to 540,000 cfm.
This will allow waste emplacement and mining to occur simultaneously, allowing WIPP to continue making more space for waste while working toward its goal of receiving and processing 17 shipments of TRU waste per week compared with the present rate of about 10 weekly shipments.
“It’s allowing us to keep going. It’s allowing us to fulfill our mission,” said Terry McKibben, project lead on the ventilation system rebuild known as the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS). “We can do more things simultaneously. We will be able to emplace waste and mine at the same time.
“That makes the facility run more efficiently.”
The SSCVS will take air from the underground, pass it through a series of filters and release it to the air while the utility shaft will increase air brought in for workers to breathe.
That shaft is about 116 feet down so far of about 2,100 feet to the underground.
Further sinking of the shaft was paused last year as NMED declined to renew a temporary authorization (TA) to build the shaft while a permit modification to operate it was under review.
NMED cited concerns with the COVID-19 health crisis and growing caseloads at WIPP in denying the TA, and opponents of the project like the Albuquerque-based watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center voiced concerns the project might not be needed.
But workers were permitted to continue outfitting the maintaining the first 116 feet of the shaft, said project lead Mark Reiss.
“We’re hopeful for the permit modification to be approved this year,” he said. “As you go through the permit process, you allow both sides to state their case. To have a underground operation, you need air.”
Sean Dunagan, president of Nuclear Waste Partnership – WIPP’s primary operations contractor – said adequate airflow was essential to the facility’s ability to achieve its mission while ensuring worker safety.
As the SSCVS is being built, WIPP plans to restart a ventilation fan that was deactivated after the 2014 incident.
The DOE and Nuclear Waste Partnership conducted a series of tests earlier this year to ensure any radiation released by the fan’s use would not pose a risk to anyone at the site or the surrounding community.
The fan would be used until the SSCVS comes online, and only during mining operations – never amid waste emplacement activities, Dunagan said.
“We need it desperately in the underground,” Dunagan said. “We’ve been hamstrung since the (2014) events. This will give us airflow above where we were. It’s going to allow us to get the operations we want.
“We have ventilation in a workable form. But it’s not ideal in any shape or form.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.