One hundred shipments of nuclear waste were sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant from a Tennessee facility since the repository reopened in 2017, the U.S. Department of Energy reported in a Tuesday announcement.
WIPP paused accepting waste shipments for three years in 2014, after an accidental radiological release contaminated parts of the underground.
The facility resumed shipments and waste disposal operations in 2017 as shipments gradually increased from multiple sites around the country including Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee which achieved the recent milestone.
The 100 shipments from Oak Ridge came from the Transuranic (TRU) Waste Processing Center, consisting of 3,327 drums of TRU waste – clothing, equipment and other materials irradiated during nuclear operations.
The shipments cut Oak Ridge’s waste inventory in half, the report read, and the waste will be disposed of in WIPP’s underground salt mine where collapsing salt will permanently entomb the drums.
Oak Ridge’s disposal efforts at WIPP were required under the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Site Treatment Plan.
The waste was created at Oak Ridge and by Nuclear Fuel Services, a contractor hired by the National Nuclear Security Administration for cleanup work at the site.
Before the waste could be sent to WIPP, primary contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership worked to certify the waste through its central characterization program (CCP) with additional packaging requirements added following the 2014 event.
“The CCP team at Oak Ridge has shown incredible perseverance through the challenges they have faced since restarting shipments,” said Jake Knox, CCP-ORNL project manager at NWP, WIPP’s management and operations contractor.
“From the WIPP incidents through the COVID pandemic, they have stayed focused on maintaining a compliant program and have made tremendous progress on cleaning up this site. I’m really proud to be part of this team.”
Since August 2017, seven of Oak Ridge’s 25 TRU waste streams were approved with the added requirements. Those seven were mostly smaller streams.
The 10 largest waste streams from Oak Ridge make up about 90 percent of its waste, per the DOE report.
“The current working waste streams over the past few years were more challenging to certify for WIPP shipment, making the 100-shipments milestone all the more difficult to reach, but all the more rewarding,” Knox said.
South Carolina Site working to send surplus plutonium to WIPP
More shipments of waste could be coming from the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina in the form of down-blended plutonium, as the facility increased work shifts in glovebox operations needed to handle the waste as it is prepared for disposal.
The gloveboxes, stainless steel enclosures about 15 feet long and 3 feet wide contain panels of safety glass and fitted glove ports where waste can be handled safely during the dilution process.
Formerly weapons-grade plutonium, the waste is diluted at Savannah River site to meet the criteria for low-level waste that can be disposed of at WIPP.
“Moving from two- to four-shift glovebox operations increases our plutonium downblending rates through our existing glovebox,” said Maxwell Smith, K Area deputy operations manager for SRS management and operations contractor Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS).
“We are also looking into expanding the apprenticeship program to other local technical colleges, providing us with more resources to fill our pipeline.”
Savannah River went from two to four shifts each day for such operations, pulling in 48 operators and support personnel and managing a training program for 10 more to fill the shifts.
“The fact that we were able to train employees, prepare, and initiate the additional shifts ahead of schedule was an impressive feat given the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated reduction of on-site staffing and social distancing requirements,” said SRNS K Area Complex Facility Manager Lee Sims.
“We attribute much of this success to the veteran operators on staff who have worked diligently to make sure the newer operators are trained, prepared, and ready to work safely.”
Virginia Kay, director of the Office of Material Disposition at the National Nuclear Security Administration said the additional shifts would be instrumental in pursuing the final disposal of plutonium from South Carolina and to prevent future nuclear proliferation.
“We are committed to removing excess plutonium from South Carolina by safely disposing of this material, and achieving this milestone is demonstrative of progress toward that objective,” Kay said.
“We are pleased that SRNS was able to initiate the additional shifts ahead of schedule, even when faced with the challenges presented by the pandemic.”
A history of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
A brief history of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.