Nuclear waste shipments from northern New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad numbered beyond the U.S. Department of Energy goals for the past year, after pressure from the State of New Mexico to increase in-state waste management.
The DOE reported 52 shipments were sent from Los Alamos to WIPP in Fiscal Year 2022, running from Oct. 1, 2021, to Sept. 30, about 73 percent higher than the DOE’s goal for FY 2022 of 30 shipments.
Those shipments included about 130 cubic meters of waste, per the DOE, about 62, 55-gallon drums.
Transuranic (TRU) waste consisting of clothing materials, equipment and other refuse contaminated by radiation during activities around the country, is shipped from laboratories and other DOE nuclear sites via truck to WIPP for disposal via burial in a salt mine about 2,000 feet underground.
DOE said its goal for the next fiscal year was 40 shipments of waste from Los Alamos, increasing by about a third.
The agency pointed to improvements in packaging and shipping of waste allowing the higher goal.
Ellen Gammon, director of waste management at N3B, the cleanup contractor at the lab, said an indoor loading facility installed by Triad National Security – the lab’s main operations contractor – helped the facility increase shipments by avoiding interruptions in waste processing during bad weather.
“Exceeding our FY22 goal means we’re successful at accelerating our movement of waste out of Technical Area 54, where we manage radioactive waste before it’s shipped offsite to a permanent disposal facility, Gammon said.
“The ability to use Triad’s indoor loading facility has allowed us to package waste for shipment in inclement weather.”
Much of the TRU waste at Los Alamos was produced during its nuclear weapons and research and production operations during the Manhattan Project and Cold War, records show.
It’s made up of protection clothing, tools and equipment contaminated by radioactive elements like plutonium and americium.
The lab also exceeded its non-TRU waste goals by about 100 containers, shipping offsite 350 containers of mixed low-level waste and low-level radioactive waste, about 560 cubic meters in about 2,690 drums.
That waste was not sent to WIPP, which is only permitted to accept TRU waste.
Ramping up waste removal from Los Alamos came as the New Mexico Environment Department and state lawmakers called on the DOE to prioritize the facility for waste disposal, arguing New Mexico should see the most benefit from the repository in its southeast corner.
“Stakeholder engagement is an important part of the EM-LA cleanup mission, and the feedback I receive is shipping more TRU waste to WIPP should be a key priority,” said manager of the DOE’s Los Alamos Office of Environmental Management Michael Mikolanis.
“We surpassed our FY22 TRU waste shipment goal by over 70 percent, which is a testament to our focus to get legacy waste off the hill and to our commitment to the citizens of New Mexico.”
In a letter sent on Dec. 22, 2021, NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney opposed the DOE entering into contracts to prioritize waste from out of state without consulting the State of New Mexico.
The contract between the federal agency and the State of Idaho was signed in 1995, and Idaho National Laboratory subsequently became the largest shipper of waste to WIPP, a sticking point for Kenney who called for a review of such practices by Congress.
The latest data from the DOE showed 6,716 shipments to WIPP came from Idaho as of Sept. 3, compared with 1,545 shipments from Los Alamos.
He also pointed to plans to ship down-blended, weapons-grade plutonium from the DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina for disposal at WIPP.
The controversial plan, opposed by several government watchdog groups in New Mexico would see about 34 metric tons of the plutonium shipped from the Pantex Plant in northern Texas and Savanah River to Los Alamos.
It would be partially processed at the lab in New Mexico before shipment back to South Carolina for dilution and then sent to WIPP.
“The practice of DOE EM solely managing waste shipments to WIPP from around the U.S. without first discussing with New Mexico stakeholders – including NMED as its regulator – now merits immediate congressional oversight,” Kenney said in his letter.
Kenney’s concerns were in response to another letter from the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, expressing national concerns for the DOE’s “environmental liabilities.”
That letter reported the DOE alone made up 85 percent or $512 billion of the U.S. government’s liabilities under the agency’s Office of Environmental Management, which manages nuclear waste disposed of at WIPP.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.