US waste repository now receives several shipments each week

20 August 2017

The US Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southern New Mexico confirmed on 18 August that is now receiving three to four shipments a week, most of them from the Idaho National Laboratory. Shipments finally resumed in April following an expensive recovery effort after a radiation release in 2014 contaminated part of the repository and forced its closure.

Earlier this month the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee made its first shipment in five years to WIPP, the federal government’s only underground nuclear waste repository. Resuming shipments from Oak Ridge has been a priority due to the large inventory of processed waste being stored onsite, said Jay Mullis, head of the environmental management office at the Tennessee site. The shipment comprised processed and treated transuranic waste which consists of materials and debris contaminated with elements that have a higher atomic mass than uranium. The majority of Oak Ridge's inventory of TRU waste originated from previous research and isotope production missions at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The goal is to increase shipments to WIPP to five or six a week by the end of the year, said Donavan Mager, a spokesman for the contractor that runs the repository. Mager said workers are becoming more proficient with new waste-handling procedures that allow them to operate in a contaminated environment. Work to move the waste to the disposal vaults carved out of a salt formation about a half-mile below ground now takes more time because of extra clothing, respirators and heavy monitoring devices that workers. Limited ventilation also slows the work.

WIPP has received 44 shipments since resuming work in April. The low-level nuclear waste has come from national laboratories in Idaho, at Savannah River in South Carolina, the private Waste Control Specialists in West Texas and now Oak Ridge. Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico is expected to send two dozen shipments later this year. The Department of  Energy has said the exact schedule will be adjusted based on factors that include weather and how quickly the waste can be taken below ground once it arrives in southern New Mexico.

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