In February 2014, two incidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, in New Mexico caused the shutdown of the only facility in the U.S. that permanently disposes of transuranic waste, or TRU waste. That waste is disposed in shafts, or drifts, about a half-mile below ground in an ancient salt bed. Some of that waste has come from Oak Ridge.
After months of investigations into the cause of a truck fire and a radiological release two weeks later, the U.S. Department of Energy released a recovery plan at the end of September that outlines the steps necessary to resume limited waste operations in the first quarter of 2016.
“Key elements of the recovery plan include strengthening safety programs, regulatory compliance, decontamination of the underground, increasing ventilation, mine stability and underground habitability, and additional workforce retraining,” according to a statement on WIPP’s website.
The recovery plan itself says “the schedule to commence waste emplacement operations is the first quarter of calendar year 2016, with the intent to incrementally increase waste emplacement operations over time. Options are being explored to determine if some actions can be accelerated.”
The recovery plan estimates the cost to do everything needed to resume limited operations to be about $242 million, but that doesn’t include two additional capital projects to restore WIPP to full operation:
- a new permanent ventilation system, with an estimated cost range of $65 million–$261 million, and
- a supporting exhaust shaft, with an estimated cost range of $12 million–$48 million.
The wide range is explained as being preliminary estimates that will be refined as detailed planning is developed and uncertainties are reduced.
DOE Environmental Management in Oak Ridge had been sending TRU waste for disposal at WIPP before the incidents. It was sending two types of TRU: contact-handled, or CH, and remote-handled, or RH. CH TRU can be manipulated directly with proper personal protection. RH TRU is higher activity material and must be handled mechanically.
Of Oak Ridge’s original inventory of 1,500 cubic meters of CH, about 97 percent has been processed at the TRU Waste Processing Center, or TWPC, off State Route 95 in southwest Oak Ridge, and about 68 percent of the inventory has been sent to WIPP.
There were about 560 cubic meters of RH TRU at TWPC. About 78 percent has been processed and 25 percent has been shipped.
Disposition amounts include material sent to WIPP and other waste determined to be low-level that is shipped to the Nevada National Security Site or commercial facilities.
“Following the WIPP shipment suspension, we worked with our contractor, Wastren Advantage Inc., to develop and implement a plan that allows continued progress toward meeting our Site Treatment Plan (STP) commitments with the state,” said Laura Wilkerson, portfolio federal project director for the TWPC. “The plan for handling TRU in the interim involves continued processing and characterization of CH waste and then using existing storage facilities at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to stage the waste until shipments to WIPP resume.”
What to do about RH waste is a little trickier.
“We have very limited storage capacity at the TWPC for RH TRU,” Wilkerson said. “That requires us to re-sequence the high dose waste processing and put the near-term focus on processing RH casks with low dose wastes that can be treated as CH.”
She said DOE is working on obtaining concrete overpacks that RH waste canisters can be stored in and staged at the lab after the waste has been characterized and processed.
Wilkerson said while STP milestones have been impacted because of the WIPP shutdown, she said DOE has been communicating the situation with the state and believes there is basis for renegotiating the milestones.