Crews at Idaho National Laboratory and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad met last week to improve safety standards shared between the two facilities after a string of problematic waste shipments from the lab triggered a state investigation.
So far this year, WIPP personnel were alerted to issues with three shipments of transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste from the Idaho lab , leading to suspensions of waste shipments from the biggest shipper of waste to WIPP.
The first incident was reported on April 9, per a letter from the New Mexico Environment Department which regulates the U.S. Department of Energy’s permit to operate WIPP, and involved a liquid substance found on a waste drum that initially tested positive for radioactivity.
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This led to an evacuation of the waste handling building, and a temporary halt on shipments of that kind from Idaho National Laboratory while the waste was sent back to Idaho.
Another shipment on Aug. 2 showed heightened levels of radioactivity from the air inside a waste container, and a third on Aug. 23 had a “greasy” substance, WIPP officials said, observed on a container that was believed to be hydraulic fluid from equipment at the lab used to load the shipment.
WIPP officials said the repository did not receive any shipments from Idaho for the past three weeks, following the incidents.
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NMED’s Hazardous Waste Bureau, in a letter from Bureau Chief Rick Shean, requested more details on the three specific events regarding Idaho shipments, and another from Los Alamos National Laboratory when a shipment was found missing a filter vent, but no contamination was ultimately discovered.
Amid the inquiry, WIPP and Idaho National Laboratory collaborated on a “safety day” where staff from both sites visited each other to discuss and study the facilities hoping to prevent future problems.
WIPP operations manager Katie Sterling said the meetings between personnel at the repository – both from the DOE and its operations contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP), along with the lab’s contractor Idaho Environmental Coalition – were intended to improve communication between the two sites.
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About 50 percent of waste shipments to WIPP since it opened in 1999 were from Idaho, per DOE records as of Sept. 3, and Sterling said cooperation between the two sites was essential to cleaning up waste at the lab.
“We’ve had a longstanding relationship with Idaho, and this is a great opportunity to make improvements by learning from one another,” she said. “It was an extremely positive experience that further opens the lines of communication between our two sites.”
During the meetings, Idaho staff were given tours of the WIPP facilities and observed waste shipments being processed for disposal.
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This should help, Coyne said, Idaho workers get a better understanding of shipment criteria at WIPP and avoid future problems that could trigger alerts at the repository.
“Both facilities felt it was beneficial to send waste management specialists to each other’s facility to meet people, review procedures and see firsthand the TRU waste shipping and receiving processes,” he said.
Mark Pearcy, chief operations officer at NWP said the site also conducted a “rolling safety stand-down” in the weeks after the recent incidents, slowing accepted shipments at WIPP from all generator sites to about three a week to allow for closer analysis of safety protocols and discussions throughout the workday.
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“Every time we have an issue or event, there’s an impact to our schedule,” he said. “We’ve got the ability to store some TRU PACTS (shipment containers) onsite if the bay is locked out.”
Pearcy said the incidents and their reactive preventative measures could be applied throughout the DOE complex to avoid similar events from other facilities.
“The lesson learned at one site is shared across the complex so that we don’t make the same mistake at a different site,” he said.
The series of incidents were unlikely related, and could possibly be attributed to human error, said Reinhard Knerr manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office, which oversees WIPP’s operations.
Other issues could be tied to aging waste drums proving problematic when extracted from a site and shipped to WIPP.
“It’s very deliberate to protect the workforce,” Knerr said of WIPP’s safety protocols. “It’s very layered in our approach to protect our workforce and the environment.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.