Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2021
By Christine Manwiller
Plans are in motion to expand the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. The underground nuclear waste repository is licensed to store low-level transuranic waste from US nuclear research and testing. This waste, consisting mostly of clothing, tools, rags, debris, and other items contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements is stored in areas mined in a salt bed layer about 2,000 feet below the surface. The new expansion would replace space lost due to radioactive contamination during a February 14, 2014 accident. A single drum of nuclear waste burst open, releasing radioactive uranium, plutonium, and americium after organic cat litter was substituted for inorganic, causing an explosion in the drum that had been packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). As a result of this accident, 22 workers and approximately 30,000 cubic meters of storage of WIPP’s underground capacity were contaminated. WIPP was closed for three years and the area is still unsafe for workers. The current expansion is only one of many that are planned, which if approved would all together double the number of storage rooms at WIPP.
The expansion of WIPP is largely to accommodate the increase in waste scheduled to be produced by LANL. The Biden administration has approved expansion of the US nuclear arsenal. Nuclear trigger production will resume, and LANL will begin producing 30 plutonium cores per year. Besides the nuclear waste that will be produced, questions regarding LANL’s facilities and safety have been raised. Greg Mello with the Los Alamos Study Group expresses his own concerns about the increase in production. “LANL’s facilities are simply too old and inherently unsafe, its location too impractical … LANL could not undertake this mission successfully.” LANL’s 2019 record supports this concern, with multiple shutdowns caused by accidents. Again on February 26, 2021 improper packaging of pyrophoric materials (which spontaneously combust when exposed to air) caused sparks to fly from a waste drum.
While the primary purpose for the expansion is to replace the space contaminated in the 2014 incident, the underground site’s operation now extends to 2033, nine years past its mandated 2024 closure. According to Don Hancock, of Southwest Research and Information Center, the expansion pushes WIPP “well beyond its historical limit.” Hancock contends that this plan is only part of the larger picture, revealed in a 2020 report from the federal Government Accountability Office “that discussed plans to add up to nine new disposal panels to WIPP.” Hancock argues that WIPP’s repeated “piecemeal” enlargement plans are deliberate, because “laying out the long-term scheme for the public would inevitably result in opposition” to the increased amounts of radioactive waste shipped into and stored in the state.