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Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) updates

Latest developments on WIPP, Carlsbad, New Mexico, United States

Nuclear-waste facility on high alert over risk of new explosions, Nature News – 27 May 2014
Hundreds of Nuclear-Waste Drums May Face Danger of Bursting, NTI’s Global Security Newswire – May 21, 2014
New Mexico orders nuclear waste dump to hasten safety measures, Reuters – May 21, 2014
U.S. nuclear waste threat ‘substantial’, Japan Times – 20 May 2014
State: WIPP must permanently close underground panels, Carlsbad Current-Argus – May 20, 2014
How Safe is Nuclear Waste? Outside Online – May 16, 2014

Nuclear-waste facility on high alert over risk of new explosions

US repository scrambles to seal off barrels containing cat-litter buffer thought to be responsible for February accident.

Nature | News | Declan Butler | 27 May 2014


Recovery teams at a New Mexico nuclear waste facility made multiple trips into the underground storage halls in April to assess damage from a ruptured drum.

Time bombs may be ticking at the United States’ only deep geological repository for nuclear waste. US authorities concluded last week that at least 368 drums of waste at the site could be susceptible to the chemical reaction suspected to have caused a drum to rupture there in February. That accident caused radioactive material to spill into the repository and leak into the environment above ground.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, is mined out of a salt bed 655 metres underground, and stores low- and medium-level military nuclear waste, containing long-lived, man-made radioactive elements such as plutonium and americium. The suspect drums contain nitrates and cellulose, which are thought to have reacted to cause the explosion in February, and are located in two of the repository’s eight vast storage rooms — 313 in panel 6, which has already been filled, and 55 in the partly filled panel 7, where the February accident occurred.

To mitigate the threat of further exploding drums, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) in Santa Fe issued an order on 20 May giving the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Waste Partnership — the contractor that operates the WIPP site — until 30 May to come up with a plan to “expedite” the sealing of panel 6 and part of panel 7. It is not yet clear when the panels will be sealed, as that will depend on how long it takes to ensure that the sealing is done safely, says Jim Winchester, a spokesman for the NMED.


An explosive chemical reaction inside this drum, photographed on 22 May, was probably what caused it to become unsealed and to release radioactivity.

The order was issued after an inspection team found evidence on 16 May of heat and physical damage to a waste drum in panel 7. The drum was one of a batch from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico that contained a mix of nitrate salts — generated, for example, in the recovery of plutonium from metal and other scrap during waste processing — and cellulose in the form of a wheat-based commercial cat litter used to absorb liquid waste.

The DOE believes a reaction between the nitrates and cellulose blew the lid off of the container. But this explanation has yet to be proven, Winchester cautions. “It is not yet known how, or if, the reaction created the rupture in the drum(s),” he says.

The LANL last year switched the processing of some of its waste to the wheat-based litter from an inorganic, clay-based absorbent. Winchester says that such changes need to first be assessed for safety, but the NMED was not informed of the change and so did not approve it. The WIPP has come under fire since the accident for progressively watering down safety standards and allowing a lax security culture to develop (see ‘Call for better oversight of nuclear-waste storage‘).

In addition to the drums at the WIPP, another 57 containing the suspect mix are still in temporary storage at the LANL. On 19 May, the NMED told the DOE and the LANL that they had two days to present a plan to secure the drums. In their response on 21 May, the LANL and the DOE said that the drums were being transferred to a tent fitted with fire-control and high-efficiency particulate air filtration to contain any radioactive particles in the event of an accident. They added that air radiation levels and the temperature of the drums were being monitored, and that the drums were being inspected hourly for signs of rupture.

The WIPP has been closed since the February accident and will reopen only “when it is safe to do so”, according to a 22 May statement from the DOE. The accident is still under investigation, and parts of the underground repository are still contaminated with radioactivity. The DOE added that current assumptions and precautions about the hazards of operating the WIPP are being “evaluated and revised”

Hundreds of Nuclear-Waste Drums May Face Danger of Bursting

NTI’s Global Security Newswire | May 21, 2014


A truck transports transuranic nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico in 2011. The state on Tuesday ordered actions at the underground storage facility to permanently seal off containers potentially at risk of rupturing. (U.S. Los Alamos National Laboratory photo)

New Mexico is urgently pushing to plug subterranean halls with over 300 nuclear-waste drums potentially at risk of bursting, the Associated Press reports.

The Energy Department and a contract firm face a May 30 deadline to explain how they will irreversibly close two chambers at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant containing the 368 barrels, according to a Tuesday order from New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn. One of the two storage halls was filled to capacity and awaiting final closure in February, when radioactive contaminants spread through the facility’s underground corridors and forced normal operations at the site to cease.

The targeted barrels — as well as dozens more held above ground — include an absorbent cat-litter tied to a rupture in one container inside the facility near Carlsbad.

Environment personnel said over 100 similarly packed barrels are at a holding location in Andrews, Texas, and 57 more of the problematic waste containers are in storage at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The Texas facility’s private operator on Tuesday said the containers in its custody were under continuous video surveillance, AP reported separately.

“If there is anything that is off normal we would be know about it immediately,” said Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for the firm Waste Control Specialists.

Meanwhile, one New Mexico lawmaker said officials in his state lack the authority to call for portions of the underground complex to be shuttered, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported.

“[Flynn] did not call our office or let us know in any way” about the imminent demand, Representative Steve Pearce (R) said. “I don’t think we’re at the point to say we should shut it down. I don’t think the state has the expertise (to be making the decision).”

New Mexico orders nuclear waste dump to hasten safety measures

Reuters | Laura Zuckerman | May 21, 2014

(Reuters) – A nuclear waste repository in New Mexico was ordered by the state on Tuesday to craft a plan to hasten the sealing off of underground vaults where drums of toxic, plutonium-tainted refuse from Los Alamos National Laboratory may have caused a radiation release.

The directive by state Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said the drums, buried half a mile below ground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near the town of Carlsbad, “may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment”.

The repository, the only facility of its kind in the United States, has been shut since Feb. 14, when unsafe radiation levels were detected there.

The leak of radiation, a small amount of which escaped to the surface and exposed 22 workers at the plant, ranks as the facility’s worst accident and one of the few blemishes on its safety record since it opened in 1999.

Flynn ordered managers of the U.S. Energy Department facility to submit schedules by May 30 for the “expedited” closure of two disposal chambers that collectively contain 368 containers of improperly packaged waste from Los Alamos.

Plant operators believe nitrate salts and organic kitty litter used to absorb liquids in drums of hazardous debris from Los Alamos caused a chemical reaction that breached the waste containers and released radiation from them.

Flynn on Monday ordered Los Alamos, 300 miles across the state northwest of Santa Fe, to submit a plan by Wednesday afternoon spelling out how it would isolate 57 similar drums still at the lab complex to lessen safety hazards there.

Los Alamos has placed drums with the same mix of nitrate salts and kitty litter in a special protective dome and is monitoring them for any rise in temperature after subjecting them to additional packaging, lab officials said in an email to Reuters on Tuesday.

Another 25 drums with the same materials were shipped between April 1 and May 1 to a commercial nuclear waste facility in Texas for temporary storage.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman from Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman and Richard Borsuk)

U.S. nuclear waste threat ‘substantial’

Japan Times | AP | 20 May, 2014

Los Alamos National Laboratory packed 57 barrels of nuclear waste with a type of kitty litter believed to have caused a radiation leak at the federal government’s troubled nuclear waste dump, posing a potentially “imminent” and “substantial” threat to public health and the environment, New Mexico officials said Monday.

State Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn issued a formal order giving the lab two days to submit a plan for securing the waste containers, many of which are likely stored outdoors at the lab’s northern New Mexico campus or at a temporary site in west Texas.

The order says 57 barrels of waste were packed with nitrate salts and organic kitty litter, a combination thought to have caused a heat reaction and radiation release that contaminated 22 workers with low levels of radiation at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad in February.

The kitty litter soaks up any liquid before drums of waste are sealed and shipped. Officials are investigating whether a switch from nonorganic to organic litter is to blame for the leak.

State: WIPP must permanently close underground panels

Carlsbad Current-Argus | Zack Ponce | May 20, 2014

CARLSBAD — The state of New Mexico will force WIPP to close some of its underground nuclear waste storage areas much sooner than anticipated.

NM Environment Department Sec. Ryan Flynn issued an order on Tuesday that requires the Department of Energy to speed up the process to permanently seal off some rooms used to store transuranic nuclear waste in drums like the one suspected of causing February’s radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad.

The DOE must submit a plan detailing the process for an expedited closure of Panel 6 and Panel 7, Room 7 at WIPP within 10 days so the containers don’t “pose a threat to human health or the environment,” according to the order issued by Flynn. The state agency clarified the order does not mean a permanent shutdown of the whole WIPP facility.

Congressman Steve Pearce, however, said he believes the state is acting beyond its authority.

“The first thing is the secretary did not call our office or let us know in any way,” said Congressman Steve Pearce, R-Hobbs. “I don’t think we’re at the point to say we should shut it down. I don’t think the state has the expertise (to be making the decision) so I don’t think there could be a good outcome.” According to the state order, the waste is subject to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, a federal environmental law, and the Environmental Protection Agency has granted the state of New Mexico authority to enforce the law at federal sites within the state.

The request follows a separate administrative order by Flynn on Monday requiring Los Alamos National Laboratory to submit a plan to secure waste containers destined for WIPP. State officials announced this week that the DOE was analyzing 57 drums of waste containing a mixture of kitty litter and nitrate salts suspected of causing a reaction that led to the radiation leak.

Investigators are still considering a number of theories for the incident, but the DOE announced last week that photographs taken underground showed a waste container with a cracked lid and heat damage, providing further evidence of a “significant heat event in WIPP’s Room 7 of Panel 7.” The 57 barrels of waste originated from Los Alamos and Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina.

The drums in question are scattered across the state at Los Alamos, WIPP and Waste Control Specialists, a private nuclear waste disposal facility in Andrews County, Texas, straddling the Texas-New Mexico border. The number of drums stored at each site is unclear, but a spokesman for WCS said the DOE and Los Alamos officials notified the company which drums were in question, and the company has since segregated those drums from the rest of the waste WCS is temporarily holding for WIPP.

“We know the containers in question and they’re being monitored,” said Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for WCS. “From the outset of this process, WCS has treated this waste with the utmost caution and we are taking all conceivable safety measures. They are under video surveillance 24 hours a day, so if there was anything unusual, we would take action immediately.”

How Safe is Nuclear Waste?

Recent nuclear power plant leaks haven’t been as extreme as, say, Chernobyl, but they’re still scary. So when should you keep calm and when should you run for the hills?

Outside Online | Nick Davidson | May 16, 2014

High doses of radiation can wreak havoc on plant and animal life, as evidenced by swaths of killed pine forests near Chernobyl and countless children born with physical maladies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But most man-made radiation lies less catastrophically in nuclear wastes stored near reactors or in underground repositories such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. In February, WIPP briefly leaked plutonium radiation that contaminated 21 workers. In the 15-year-old facility’s first leak, exhaust systems automatically forced the radioactive plume through High Efficiency Particulate Air Filters to contain it, but not before a small amount escaped. Are we safe?

“Safety is a charged term,” says Gary Lanthrum, principal engineer for Radioactive Material Transportation and Storage Consulting. “Risks from radiation are lower than other industrial risks,” due in part to stringent regulations placed on radioactive materials.

Transuranic wastes like the plutonium and americium deposited at WIPP, for example, ship in Type B containers that can withstand 80-mph locomotive impacts without leakage. These isotopes emit low-energy radiation in alpha particles that can’t even penetrate paper. In that sense they’re fairly benign. But because they have incredibly long half-lives—plutonium-239 takes 24,000 years to halve its radioactivity—they require secure storage for eons before stabilizing.

Scientists have deemed geologic disposal the best and safest method for the job. The storage rooms at WIPP sit 2,150 feet underground amid two-million-year-old salt deposits. Over time, that salt encapsulates the waste, “virtually entombing it for eons,” says Russell Hardy, director of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center.

High-level radioactive waste, which emits intense gamma particles that can penetrate lead, is a bigger problem. Some 270,000 metric tons of it—the size of a football field with a ten-yard depth—wait in temporary storage. “Right now we have no disposal program for the spent nuclear fuel from power plants, and all of it is just sitting on the surface,” Lanthrum says. This includes thermally hot and highly radioactive uranium-235 in ceramic pellets inside alloy fuel rods. These are kept cool in open steel-lined concrete pools. “Terribly dangerous,” says Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, which seeks nuclear disarmament and enhanced environmental protection. Dry casks lined with thick steel and concrete are safer. The already-low radiation levels near these casks decrease exponentially even a couple inches away, and under both storage methods the intense radiation drastically declines after five years.

So how much of this radiation are you exposed to? Unless you work at a nuclear plant or waste repository, very little. The average person in the U.S. receives an annual radiation dose of 600 millirems just from being alive, from such sources as the earth’s natural radon gas or cosmic radiation that penetrates the atmosphere. According to Lanthrum, WIPP violated its goal of zero release but not its licensed release rate. Workers at WIPP are allowed 5,000 millirems per year, and even those 21 workers exposed to February’s leak absorbed only 100 millirems. The surrounding population likely received up to one millirem—a dose equivalent to eating ten bananas, which contain radioactive potassium.

Though cataclysmic leaks are unlikely, nuclear waste poses an inherent danger that can be exacerbated by human error. “Imagine a matrix of possibilities consisting of types of waste arrayed along one axis and various situations along another axis with a third dimension of time,” says Mello. “Some of the cells in that table will be Pretty Darn Safe, some will be Safer Than Alternatives, some will be Iffy, and some will be Pretty Bad Ideas.”

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