By Lindsay Potter
The Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), in Carlsbad, New Mexico, opened in 1999 as the only long-term storage facility designed to entomb radioactive nuclear weapons waste for 10,000 years in ancient salt bed caverns excavated 2,000 feet below ground. However, in February 2014, an improperly packed drum self-heated to 1,600 degrees and exploded, spewing uranium, plutonium, and americium throughout 30,000 cubic meters and into the ventilation shaft, which failed to contain the poison air. The calamity caused a three-year shutdown, left at least 22 workers internally exposed to plutonium radiation, and potentially exposed another 140 people working on the surface. The lack of oversight cost tax-payers $2 billion in clean-up and another $73 million in fines the New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED) levied on the Department of Energy (DOE) — though the money went to improve infrastructure in and around WIPP rather than to local constituents affected by the release. Nuclear Waste Partners (NWP), the DOE’s contractor running the site, was docked a mere $1 million off its multi-million dollar annual incentive, paid by the federal government above the cost of operating the site. WIPP receives shipments of transuranic waste from 22 locations around the country, mostly plutonium-contaminated gloves, tools, and equipment from Cold-war era weapons production. However, the DOE is considering expanding WIPP’s capacity, operations, and timeline to include storage of private commercial nuclear wastes and surplus plutonium.
WIPP’s re-opening was plagued with mishaps — including releases of contaminated air, roof collapses, and dozens of permit violations — but resulted in no penalties. Regardless, the EPA deemed WIPP compliant in July 2017, and the DOE promised a $2 million reopening bonus, dangling another $2.1 million for meeting performance milestones. The facility resumed full operations in 2021. In October, Panel 7, a radioactively contaminated work space sitting open since 2014, was filled and sealed with a 100-foot thick layer of salt sandwiched between two steel bulkheads. In November, workers loaded the first barrels, from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, into Panel 8, the final-permitted panel.
Poor Performance, Perpetual Problems
Despite precedent, on February 26, 2021, improperly packed pyrophoric materials caused a waste drum to spark and, throughout 2022, WIPP faced a slew of further accidents, failures to comply, and unanticipated shutdowns, rendering the number of received shipments nearly fifty percent short of productivity goals.
In August, Idaho National Laboratory (INL) was forced to stop shipments to WIPP for two months while the NMED investigated issues at the waste handling bay, including several containers from INL with radioactive surface substances or elevated internal radioactivity, some of which were sent back to Idaho.
Multiple unplanned maintenance issues stalled work, including a September shutdown to assess the waste hoist’s brake pads. However, while the hoist was not operating, NWP changed specifications for the equipment, and work resumed days later.
On October 10, WIPP’s air monitors tripped. Tests found radon on air filters from radium-226, released by decaying uranium, likely from gas vented from containers as waste breaks down. Radon gas is the greatest cause of lung cancer among non-smokers according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Two months earlier, on August 9, NMED logged a shipment from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) missing vent filters necessary to contain particulate matter.
Sixty More Years of Waste Production
The DOE applied to renew its 10-year permit with requests to add two new panels and remove WIPP’s 2024 closure date, leaving its operational timeline open-ended. While the NMED reviews the application, Santa Fe locals are pushing back against a new plan to bury surplus plutonium at WIPP. The proposal would send plutonium across the country, some 1,500 miles each way, from LANL to the Savannah River Site to be diluted and then back for burial at WIPP.
Yet the DOE digs deeper to find further sources of waste for WIPP’s coffers. The Government Accountability Office reported on September 29 that WIPP is the “preferred alternative” dumping ground for “greater than Class C (GTCC)” waste — “commercial low-level nuclear waste from decommissioned reactors or unused medical or industrial equipment” (Carlsbad Current-Argus). Projections through 2083 estimate the DOE will accumulate 12,000 cubic meters of this and other “GTCC-like” wastes, neither of which has a current legal pathway for disposal. The DOE may “assume responsibility” for radioactive waste generated by private companies and use taxpayer money to bury it deep in the salt caverns, so the commercial nuclear industry can continue to rake in profits without concern for how to handle its legacy of contamination. Ultimately, the DOE is awaiting approval by Congress as federal law may not allow government custody of the waste.
These new projects could drive WIPP operations indefinitely, with the facility presently under half its statutory 6.2 million cubic foot capacity. However, the nine new storage panels needed to hold this quantity would require additional permitting by the NMED.