An eighth panel to store nuclear waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s underground repository near Carlsbad was completed with waste expected to go in next year.
At WIPP, low-level transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste made up of clothing materials and equipment irradiated during nuclear activities, is stored in an underground salt deposit about 2,000 feet underground.
The facility stores the waste in panels, with each panel containing seven rooms where workers emplace drums of it and allow the salt to gradually collapse in for permanent disposal.
More:U.S. Senate bill has implications for New Mexico nuclear waste projects
WIPP has emplaced waste in seven panels so far but lost some capacity due to contamination from an accidental radiological release in 2014 that also disrupted mining and emplacement activities during a three-year shutdown of the WIPP’s core operations.
But seven years since mining Panel 8 began, WIPP officials reported the work was complete in Tuesday announcement.
Panel 7 was expected to be full by April 2022, per the announcement, and Panel 8 will be ready to accept waste immediately.
More:WIPP: Critics accuse feds of expanding nuclear waste repository before New Mexico task force
“We are all focused on working safely and productively in order to see Panel 8 in use next year,” said Reinhard Knerr, manager of the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office. “It’s been a long time coming, but Panel 8 will be ready just when we need it.”
Remaining work on the panel included electricity, mine phones, protective chain link on the walls and air monitors.
Mining of the panel was completed on Sept. 28 and the heavy mining equipment was removed after completing the floor in Room 3.
More:Texas sues federal government to block nuclear waste facility along New Mexico border
The work began in 2013 but was halted during the 2014 event and sat idle during the shutdown, meaning rock salt creeped and the location of the panel had to shifted.
Mining resumed in 2018, recutting the rock for the seven rooms of Panel 8. Each room is 300 feet long, 33 feet wide and 15 to 16 feet tall.
The rooms were created using continuous miner machines which pass through using guided lasers, then dig out the floor. They cut 8 to 10 tons of salt per minute, dumping into haul trucks before being transported to the surface 5 tons at a time using a hoist and stored on the northern portion of the WIPP property.
More:WIPP: Air system rebuild at Carlsbad nuclear waste site two weeks ahead of schedule
About 160,000 tons or 320 million pounds of salt rock was cut during the project, the approximate weight of 160 baby humpback wales or 1.5 aircraft carriers.
Following the panel, miners will next cut drifts running west from the existing mine connecting the drifts with a new under-construction utility shaft.
A probe hole was used to seek out any geological challenges with mining to the west, and side drift will connect a southern drift with an existing air intake shaft that is being converted to a exhaust air through new ductwork, fans and 75-foot tall exhaust shaft.
More:WIPP: New panels to dispose of nuclear waste
The utility shaft project was paused last year when the New Mexico Environment Department denied extending a temporary authorization for construction ahead of a modification to WIPP’s permit to allow its use, citing concerns with COVID-19 infections at the site.
The permit modification is under review by NMED.
Also under review by NMED was a proposal by WIPP to construct two additional panels needed to restore the facility’s capacity from losses associated with the 2014 incident.
More:Nuclear waste facility near Carlsbad sees COVID-19 surge as infections rise in New Mexico
The expected ninth and 10th panels were deemed unusable due to contamination and rock shifts, and WIPP officials believed Panels 11 and 12 could be constructed to make up the difference.
In a letter to WIPP workers following the completion of Panel 8, Sen Dunagan, president of Nuclear Waste Partnership – WIPP’s primary operations contractor – said the work faced obstacles throughout the project but was needed to ensure WIPP’s successful mission in disposing of the nation’s TRU nuclear waste.
“There were challenges along the way, including re-cutting rooms, but the team handled every technical and mechanical need along the way, ensuring a safe working environment for future waste emplacement,” Dunagan wrote.
“Outfitting the panel remains, but that is on track to be completed in time to move smoothly from emplacement in Panel 7 to Panel 8 next spring.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.