While officials from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant sat down at a national symposium to tout the facility’s successes, a federal watchdog report expressed grave concerns for the ability of the nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad to fulfill its mission.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Tuesday published its latest report regarding challenges construction projects are facing at WIPP, including available staff and inexperience in major capital projects on the part of WIPP operations contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP).
Multiple critical projects at WIPP are underway including an almost half-billion-dollar rebuild of the facility’s ventilation system known as the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS) and a $100 million associated air intake shaft.
While the SSCVS was initially expected to be complete in November, records show, it was delayed multiple times after the first construction contract was terminated in 2020 with Carlsbad-based Critical Applications Alliance.
The company subsequently sued the DOE and NWP for $32 million.
Work began on the SSCVS in 2018, but the GAO worried it would now cost $486 million, about 70 percent more than initial estimate of $288 million, and face a three-year delay to a completion date of January 2026.
The utility shaft project was also delayed for about a year after the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) denied a temporary approval for its construction, also in 2020, citing rising COVID-19 infections at the site.
Work on the shaft resumed in November 2021.
Both projects were intended to increase airflow in the underground nuclear waste repository, allowing more workers to conduct mining and waste emplacement operations needed to achieve goals of increasing shipments and constructing more space to dispose of waste.
The GAO reported projects such as the utility shaft and SSCVS saw cost increases and schedule delays brought on by NWP’s “inexperience” and an inability to recruit workers to Carlsbad – the city nearest to WIPP.
The report also found the Department of Energy lacks a plan for addressing needed corrective actions, meaning further cost increases and delays could occur.
“While some of these corrective actions may also help to address the root causes, the extent to which these actions will do so is unclear because DOE is not required to develop a corrective action plan for addressing the root causes and does not have a process to determine whether root causes have been sufficiently addressed,” read the report.
“Without such a plan and process, DOE cannot ensure that root causes it identifies for cost increases and schedule delays in the WIPP ventilation project or other projects will not persist or recur.”
Nuclear waste officials optimistic at Waste Management Symposium
But during the 2022 Waste Management Symposia last week held in Phoenix, Manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office Reinhard Knerr touted the facility’s successes in mining an eighth waste disposal panel, the last one approved under WIPP’s current permit.
A 10-year renewal of the WIPP permit with the New Mexico Environment Department was underway with a decision expected this year and would add language to allow two more panels which officials argued were needed to make up for space lost to contamination in a 2014 accidental radiological release.
The seventh panel was expected to be full by September, with Panel 8 accepting waste shortly thereafter.
WIPP was about 40 percent full as of the symposium, Knerr said, and the added panels would be needed to fulfill the facility’s statutory capacity limit of 6.2 million cubic feet of waste.
He also reported WIPP intended to increase shipments from Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico, amid calls by state officials that WIPP should prioritize nuclear waste from within the state, and that it would resume accepting higher-radiation, remote-handled waste by 2025.
The GAO expressed concerns WIPP was running out of space for waste, with Panel 8 expected to be full by August 2025, and the report said the additional two panels could risk being incomplete by the time the space was needed.
Knerr said the site continued to receive support from the local community in southeast New Mexico and must continue to do so to achieve its future goals.
“Their support has been invaluable to our success,” he said.
But even more important to WIPP’s success could be support from the federal government that regulates its operations.
The GAO made multiple recommendations in its report.
It called for Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm to directly assess how delays specific to the SSCVS project and their causes were being addressed.
It also called on the DOE to work to address NWP’s reported lack of experience in large construction projects and how workers were recruited to the WIPP site, along with regulatory risks to WIPP’s disposal goals.
“DOE’s construction project to improve the ventilation system is part of its plans to ensure that WIPP can meet DOE’s anticipated needs for waste disposal,” the report read. “However, the department faces construction and regulatory risks that might delay its plans.”
And continual disposal of nuclear waste generated by DOE sites across the country depend on WIPP’s air system upgrades, the GAO reported, meaning risks to them could means risks to the WIPP mission itself.
“DOE is working to return WIPP to full disposal operations while also getting the regulatory approvals to mine new panels that will be needed after August 2025,” the report read.
“However, the construction project on which these efforts depend—SSCVS—has experienced cost increases and schedule delays, and DOE has not developed a corrective action plan to address root causes it identified for these problems.”
In its response to the GAO report, the DOE said it concurred with its recommendations and was committed addressing the problems and their causes to ensure WIPP was successful in its mission.
“The Department is committed to ensuring root causes of project cost and schedule delays are identified and fully addressed to ensure that DOE projects benefit taxpayers while reducing the risk to human health and the environment.”