Safety issues at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant meant a slowdown in shipments of nuclear waste accepted for disposal at the underground repository last month.
There were only three shipments accepted in September, records show, and seven in August, while previous months averaged more than 20. So far this month, four containers were received on Oct. 1.
WIPP officials recently said they are targeting a goal of 10 shipments per week.
Low-level transuranic (TRU) waste consisting of clothing materials and equipment irradiated during nuclear activities is permanently disposed of at WIPP from U.S. Department of Energy facilities around the country.
But issues with ventilation and problems with the mined floor of the underground meant waste was unable to be emplaced in September in the facility’s salt deposit where the salt is allowed to collapse and permanently emplace drums of waste.
That meant WIPP could also not accept shipments of the waste and was forced to hold the shipments it had received prior on the surface.
The latest report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) filed Sept. 3 found uneven floor conditions in the underground meant disposal operations were halted.
This led to capacity being reached at both the Contact-Handled (CH) Bay where waste is processed for disposal, and the Parking Area Unit (PAU) where delivered waste is held outside before brought into the facility.
That meant the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO) had to limit shipments accepted in August.
“Uneven floor conditions discovered in the underground resulted in a halt to disposal operations. Consequently, the Contact Handled (CH) Bay and the Parking Area Unit (PAU) reached maximum capacity and the Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO) was forced to limit the number of shipments the site could receive in this month,” the DNFSB report read.
Meanwhile, WIPP contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) reported to the board that on Aug. 5 it found an issue with the site’s ventilation system that could have pushed unfiltered, contaminated air from the CH Bay through the waste shaft into the underground in the event of a radiological release.
NWP spokesman Donavan Mage said this meant operations in the CH Bay where waste is prepared for emplacement, were suspended.
Operations resumed on Oct. 15.
“Safety is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s (WIPP) first priority when working to carry out the Department of Energy’s (DOE) clean-up mission,” Mager said in a statement. “On Aug. 5, 2021, Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP), WIPP’s main contractor, discovered the airflow rate and ventilation in the WIPP Contact Handled (CH) Bay were not consistent with facility safety requirements.
“Consistent with site protocol, operations in the CH Bay were suspended and the CH Bay was placed into a safe and stable configuration.”
Shipments were halted, Mager said, to allow the facility to stay within storage restrictions.
“In order to stay within site storage restrictions, DOE temporarily suspended shipments from across the complex until corrective actions were developed and implemented,” he said.
DOE records show 207 containers of waste were emplaced in August between Aug. 13 and 19. In September, 101 containers were emplaced, records show, only on Sept. 1 and 2.
On Oct. 13, the CBFO applied to the New Mexico Environment Department’s Hazardous Waste Bureau for an extension of the time waste is allowed to be stored at the CH Bay.
In a letter to the Bureau signed by CBFO Manager Reinhard Knerr and NWP President Sean Dunagan, WIPP’s operators reported 14 shipments in the bay were approaching their time limit but would likely need to stay on the surface longer.
It was expected the waste would be emplaced Oct. 16 when operations resumed, the letter read, but the extension was requested in case of delays.
No waste shipments were emplaced yet this month, per the latest records from DOE. The WIPP emplacement database typically operates with a two-week lag so the latest records may not reflect recent emplacements.
Knerr and Dunagan contended in the letter that the containers in question did not pose any risk to human health or the environment as they were stored in accordance to WIPP safety requirements.
“It is anticipated that waste disposal operations will resume on October 16, 2021, which would allow waste emplacement of the containers with the earliest storage limit expiration date,” the letter read.
“However, as a precautionary measure, a storage time limit extension is being requested in case the anticipated resumption of waste disposal operations is delayed.”
Nuclear Waste Program Director Don Hancock at the Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque-based watchdog group and frequent WIPP critic, questioned how the problems were only recently found despite a multi-month pause of operations earlier this year while WIPP workers completed maintenance projects.
He pointed to an Aug. 6 report from the DNFSB that showed the uneven floor conditions were known about since July and questioned why the facility was accepting waste when unable to emplace.
“This is a self-imposed problem,” Hancock said. “This problem has been known about since July. They moved these shipments into the waste handling building on their own. They didn’t know when they could take them underground.
“That points to an incompetent contractor and incompetent contracting agency, the DOE.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.