Nuclear waste at the federal government’s repository near Carlsbad will be handled by a new company for at least the next decade, after a $3 billion contract was awarded and finalized for the work.
The contractor Tularosa Basin Range Services, doing business as Salado Isolation Mining Contractors (SIMCO) – a subsidiary of Bechtel National was awarded the contract for daily operations of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Records show two protests from other bidders were denied earlier this month by the Government Accountability Office.
Those protests were filed by National Tru Solutions, a subsidiary of Huntington Ingalls Industries, and Westinghouse Electric’s subsidiary Carlsbad Operations Alliance, delaying the contract award announced in July by about three months.
All three companies have experience in handling nuclear waste cleanup via DOE contracts, but Bechtel was ultimately awarded the contract and moved forward with a 90-day transition to take over operations of the WIPP from Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) – a subsidiary of Amentum.
That transition will mean SIMCO must quickly become versed on mining operations, nuclear waste protocols and several large capital projects like a $100 million utility shaft under construction and a more than $400 million rebuild of WIPP’s ventilation system.
WIPP also recently completed mining of its eighth disposal panel, the final permitted space for emplacing nuclear waste, allowing workers to operate underground without ventilators and other personal protective equipment (PPE).
That’s because the last panel WIPP used which is now full was contaminated in 2014 when a mispackaged drum ruptured and released radioactive material at the facility – an incident that led to a three-year shutdown of WIPP’s mining and disposal operations.
Jack Volpato, chair of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force said sealing Panel 7 and shifting to Panel 8 will mean more shipments of nuclear waste coming to the site and being disposed of at a faster rate.
He estimated it took an entire day to emplace four panels of waste while Panel 7 was in use, and that the same volume could be disposed of “in four hours” with Panel 8 open.
“The shipments are going to start ramping up,” Volpato said. “You don’t have to use PPE, and that really speeds up the process.”
He said the three-month transition could pose a challenge for SIMCO, especially as it abuts the holiday season.
“It’s a steep learning curve for them coming in,” he said. “They’ve got 90 days to get ready. That’s a short learning curve with everything going on at WIPP.”
Volpato said the task force, made up of local Carlsbad leaders serving in an advisory role for the WIPP site, met with SIMCO officials and NWP recently and he expected the company would be able to adequately manage the site alone in three months.
“We laid out what our expectations are, and what we’re used to,” he said. “We certainly want that to continue. They’re going to take advantage of all the time that they can. With the holidays coming up, it’s an unusual time for a transition. It’s a challenge, but I think they’ll meet the challenge.”
Ken Harrawood, SIMCO president and WIPP program manager said the new contractor will prioritize safety in operating the WIPP site, while looking to “maintain continuity” with incumbent staff and the nearby community.
“We are looking forward to working collaboratively with the DOE, incumbent employees, regulators, and our local community and stakeholders during this transition phase so that we maintain continuity from the first day we assume responsibility of WIPP,” he said.
In a memo to the WIPP workforce, Harrawood said SIMCO intended to continue employing all union represented and non-supervisory workers “in good standing,” and will consider maintaining those in leadership roles.
The timelines for hiring or transitioning current workers to SIMCO were yet to be determined, Harrawood wrote.
“I respect and value the contributions each of you have made to build WIPP’s proud legacy of supporting our nation’s nuclear cleanup mission,” read the memo. “I pledge to communicate openly about our plans with incumbent employees at all work locations.”
Dena Volovar, executive vice president at Bechtel National said in a statement following the initial award that the company planned to help advance the WIPP mission and would work closely with the Carlsbad in doing so.
“The mission to safely dispose of defense-related nuclear waste is vitally important for protecting people and the planet,” Volovar said. “We’re honored to be entrusted with this mission and look forward to joining the WIPP team and the Carlsbad community.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.