By Arianne Peterson
Summer Quarterly 2017
On Jan. 4, 2017, the Department of Energy (DOE) reopened its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), which had been closed since a barrel of radioactive waste stored there exploded in February 2014. The New Mexico facility is the only one accepting transuranic waste (including contaminated tools, clothing, gloves, soil, and debris) from the federal sites involved in nuclear weapons production, and its 35-month closure has caused a backlog of packaged waste to pile up above ground at cleanup sites across the country.
When the DOE opened WIPP in 1999, it touted the underground site as a “permanent” storage facility for military radioactive waste that would “start clean” and “stay clean.” Now, significant portions of the site are permanently contaminated and workers have to wear respirators and protective clothing. The ventilation system which was damaged by the radiation release following the 2014 explosion is operating at a fraction of its original capacity; the DOE is replacing it with a new system expected to be ready in 2021, at an estimated cost of $350-400 million. Citizens’ and environmental watchdog groups have expressed concerns about whether the site is safe to reopen.
Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center voiced disappointment when the facility was cleared for reopening in December 2016: “The question is how long it is going to be into the new year [before another accident happens]. People, especially workers, are likely to get hurt because they still have significant problems.”
The Mine Safety and Health Administration released a report in December warning that underground conditions have deteriorated significantly while the site was closed. The salt deposit that encloses the storage area contracts by as much as six inches per year, and keeping the dug-out waste rooms intact requires constant structural maintenance, which has been significantly interrupted by the 3-year closure.
WIPP’s reopening was delayed by two significant roof collapses in the waste storage rooms in late 2016. On Nov. 3, an eight-foot-thick section of ceiling more than 60 yards long crashed to the tunnel floor while workers were underground, causing an evacuation but no injuries. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration Report: “Emergencies are addressed immediately while lower priorities languish until they become emergencies… As the risk level increases, so does the likelihood of unanticipated events.”
After the Jan. 4 reopening, WIPP focused on burying the waste that had been left above ground at the site since the February 2014 explosion. The site’s first shipment of off-site waste arrived April 10, and the DOE expects to accept two shipments of waste per week until it makes improvements to the damaged ventilation system later this year. A WIPP press release stated, “Initial shipments are expected from Idaho, Savannah River Site and Waste Control Specialists. Shipments from Oak Ridge and Los Alamos National Laboratory are expected later this year.”
In December, New Mexico-based groups Citizen Action New Mexico and Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Energy Department asking for documents related to preparations for reopening WIPP—including any financial incentives promised to the Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that runs the facility, for speeding up the process. The DOE denied the groups’ request for an expedited return of FOIA information and they are appealing, citing a lack of transparency surrounding the reopening. While DOE officials have denied that bonuses are tied to the reopening, a 2017 Department of Energy Performance Evaluation and Measurement Plan for WIPP says the contractor could receive more than $2 million for reopening and another $2.1 million for completing a waste placement milestone within the first 90 days of resumed operations.
In fiscal year 2016, Nuclear Waste Partnership received $11.2 million (around 72%) of a possible $15.5 million in bonus funds. According to ARS Technica, the Times reported in 2016 that the DOE added $640 million to the contract for direct cleanup costs after the accident, which does not include the ventilation system replacement or the added price of keeping waste above ground at clean-up sites around the country over the past three years.
—DOE Office of Environmental Management Update, Jan. 17; Exchange Monitor, Mar. 7; ARS Technica, Apr. 25; Carlsbad Current-Argus, May 9, 2017; Albuquerque Journal, Dec. 6; Santa Fe New Mexican, Dec. 23, 2016