A half-billion-dollar rebuild of the ventilation system at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad will improve airflow for sub-surface workers at the facility as disposal operations shift from a contaminated area in the underground.
Since 2014, waste emplacement and mining personnel were required to wear breathing apparatuses and other protective equipment following an accidental radiological release that year that suspended the facility’s primary operations for three years.
Work resumed in 2017, and recently workers finished emplacing waste in contaminated Panel 7 and moved to Panel 8 where protective equipment was no longer needed.
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That incident also restricted airflow in the underground where transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste is disposed of from around the country via burial in an underground salt deposit.
When complete, the new ventilation system was estimated to provide 540,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of air for workers to breathe, compared with the 170,000 cfm available since the 2014 event.
It will draw air into the repository via a new utility shaft be built at the site, which Department of Energy officials said recently reached a depth of 720 feet.
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When complete, the shaft – WIPP’s fifth – will be sunk to a depth of 2,275 feet, providing better access to the underground while improving ventilation.
Work on the shaft was suspended by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) in November 2020 with the agency citing widespread COVID-19 infections at WIPP, but work resumed in June.
It will be 26 feet in diameter, the largest shaft at the site, and will allow enough airflow for workers to mine new space for waste disposal, while simultaneously emplacing waste and conducting ground control and maintenance work in the underground.
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The DOE is seeking approval from the NMED via its 10-year permit renewal, to mine two additional panels at the site to replace space lost to contamination in the 2014 release.
That new space will likely be needed in about 2 and a half years, the designed lifetime of Panel 8.
The entire ventilation rebuild project was expected to be complete by the end of 2025.
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That also entails a series of ventilation fans and filters known as the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS), that will exhaust air from the facility drawn in by the shaft.
The SSCVS was expected to cost about $486 million, with the shaft at about $100 million.
Work on the SSCVS was delayed multiple years from its initially expected 2022 completion date, and costs increased from the initial cost of $288 million after the contractor hired by the DOE for the work was terminated in 2020.
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A new contractor was hired the following year, and the DOE reported recently the project was following the revised schedule, nearing completion of Salt Reduction Building used to remove salt from the air with misters and other equipment.
From there, the air will flow into the New Filter Building, where 22 high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters will remove other contaminants before it is vented into the environment.
Steve Smith, capital and infrastructure projects manager with Nuclear Waste Partnership – the DOE-hired contractor running daily operations at WIPP – said interruptions in available supplies also posed obstacles to the work.
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“WIPP’s utility shaft and the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS) are making very good progress and are overcoming supply chain issues with creative workarounds,” he said. “The utility shaft is tracking to the schedule, progressing through some of the most difficult geology now and still maintaining the overall project schedule.”
During a recent visit to the WIPP site and nearby Carlsbad and Hobbs communities, officials with the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) were briefed on the projects, noting the importance of the region and WIPP site to disposing of the nation’s nuclear waste.
“Our trip helped reinforce that New Mexico remains an environmental cleanup priority for EM,” said Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Field Operations Nicole Nelson-Jean. “We are eager to continue working with elected officials, community leaders and regulators throughout New Mexico to help ensure the success of EM’s mission.”
EM Senior Advisor William White said the visit and discussion will help the agency plan for continued operations in New Mexico at WIPP and Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2023.
“While the New Mexico trip was a quick one, it was quite helpful as EM looks forward to closing out a successful 2022 in New Mexico and making more progress in the coming year,” he said. “In 2022, EM made a concerted effort to increase stakeholder engagement by EM-Los Alamos and WIPP and we plan to increase our efforts in 2023.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.