For the first time since 2012, transuranic waste processed and treated in Oak Ridge is leaving the Transuranic Waste Processing Center for permanent disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico.
The first shipment left Oak Ridge on August 9.
Transuranic waste consists of materials and debris that are contaminated with elements that have a higher atomic mass and listed after uranium on the periodic table. The majority of Oak Ridge’s inventory originated from previous research and isotope production missions at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
“Resuming shipments has been an important priority for our program due to the large inventory of processed waste that is stored in onsite facilities,” said Jay Mullis, acting manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management. “These shipments will remove risk from our site and help fulfill our commitments to the state of Tennessee. This was only possible through a lot of hard work from the federal and contractor employees here and support from staff in Carlsbad.”
Originally, much of the site’s transuranic waste was scheduled for shipment in 2014. However, weeks before shipments started, two events occurred at WIPP in February 2014—a truck fire and an unrelated radiological event—that suspended waste disposal operations, a press release said. These operations resumed in January 2017, and WIPP has begun receiving shipments from select sites across the U.S. Department of Energy complex.
“This is a really exciting day for us,” said Linda Beach, North Wind Solutions program manager at the Transuranic Waste Processing Center. “I’m very proud of how our workforce has responded to the unexpected challenges during the past several years. They have been committed to our mission, and showed great innovation to identify ways to continue making progress and safely store waste despite the delay in shipments.”
With operations at WIPP ramping up, Oak Ridge anticipates making multiple shipments each month, the press release said. Eligibility for shipping is based on sites verifying that the waste meets requirements for safe transportation and disposal. The exact allocation and sequence for shipping will be adjusted based on the emplacement rate at WIPP, operational needs at the WIPP and sites, and logistical issues, such as weather, that affect shipping.
Oak Ridge Today reported in March that WIPP, an underground waste facility in southeastern New Mexico, would start accepting transuranic waste again in April from places like Oak Ridge. WIPP had been shut down for about three years after the salt haul truck fire and radiological release.
Oak Ridge then expected to send 24 shipments of the transuranic, or TRU, waste by January 2018 to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
There was an official re-opening event at WIPP on Monday, January 9, with remarks by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and members of the New Mexico congressional delegation.
Since the closure three years ago, Oak Ridge workers have continued processing waste and developed innovative storage solutions until shipping can resume to WIPP, Ben Williams, spokesperson for the DOE Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management, said earlier this year.
North Wind Solutions took over the operation of the Transuranic Waste Processing Center, which is south of Bethel Valley Road on Highway 95 in southwest Oak Ridge, in December 2015. At that time, North Wind was expected to continue processing and storing transuranic waste until WIPP re-opened in New Mexico. WIPP is the only facility in the U.S. that permanently disposes of transuranic waste, or TRU waste.
In January, Williams said workers at the Transuranic Waste Processing Center, or TWPC, have continued making significant progress, processing a total of 95 percent of Oak Ridge’s inventory of contact-handled waste and 83 percent of its remote-handled waste. Contractors also collaborated to design new protective outer containers to safely store the processed remote-handled waste as it awaits transportation, Williams said.
Also, UCOR, DOE’s cleanup contractor in Oak Ridge, made facilities available to store the inventory of higher radioactive processed waste away from the TWPC, so work can continue there, Williams said.
The Oak Ridge site, which has been open more than a dozen years, treats legacy transuranic waste that has been in storage for many years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. That includes lab equipment or materials from research and development at ORNL and personal protective equipment. Some of the radioactive materials are handled remotely and others in glove boxes.
Oak Ridge had been sending TRU waste for disposal at WIPP before the two incidents in February 2014. It was sending two types of TRU waste: contact-handled and remote-handled. Contact-handled TRU waste can be manipulated directly with proper personal protection. Remote-handled TRU waste is higher activity material and must be handled mechanically.
Waste is disposed at WIPP in shafts, or drifts, about a half-mile below ground in an ancient salt bed.
Transuranic waste contains manmade elements heavier than uranium, such as plutonium, hence the name “trans” or “beyond” uranium. Transuranic waste material is generally associated with the human manipulation of fissionable material dating back to the Manhattan Project through today, and it primarily consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, soil, and debris. The Manhattan Project was a top-secret federal program to build the world’s first atomic weapons during World War II.
This year, WIPP said it has safely transported more than 11,800 shipments to its facility, totaling more than 14 million miles.
See previous stories on transuranic waste here.
See the U.S. Department of Energy Operational Readiness Review for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant from December 2016 here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.