December 22, 2014

IDAHO FALLS – The morning of Feb. 5, deep below the New Mexico desert, a salt-hauling truck caught fire inside the nation’s only repository for nuclear weapons waste.

Nine days later, on the opposite end of the underground mine known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, near Los Alamos, another accident occurred. This time, a 55-gallon drum of waste suddenly burst open, spewing large amounts of radioactive white foam. Airborne radiation from the incident traced its way up a ventilation duct to the surface, exposing 21 workers to low-radiation doses.

The plant, previously without a major mishap, will remain closed until at least 2016 as investigation and cleanup efforts continue.Earlier this month, the New Mexico Environment Department fined WIPP and Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the volatile waste drum came from, more than $54 million for various hazardous waste violations.

Meanwhile, the repository’s extended closure has created something of a radioactive waste traffic jam at Department of Energy cleanup sites around the country.

One of the largest ripple effects of the WIPP shutdown is being felt at Idaho National Laboratory’s desert site, where steel drums filled with transuranic waste are piling up. Before the accident, Idaho’s cleanup effort was shipping more transuranic waste to WIPP than any other DOE facility.


Officials at the Idaho site are concerned WIPP’s still-uncertain future could result in missing at least one major state-mandated cleanup deadline. Idaho is the only state with a court order requiring nuclear waste to be removed by specific dates.

“I don’t know when we’re going to start shipping waste out of here, and I don’t know if anybody knows,” Brad Bugger, a supervisor at DOE’s Idaho Operations Office, told the INL Site Citizens Advisory Board last month.


Transuranic waste, the radioactive stuff sealed in drums and boxes intended for WIPP, has been generated at federal facilities around the U.S. since the 1940s.

It’s the result of decades of nuclear weapons research, development and production, and includes everything from tools to laboratory clothing to sludge – anything that’s been contaminated with a radioactive material such as plutonium.

Most transuranic waste at the INL site came from the now-closed Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver, where nuclear weapon components were made. Truckloads of waste, held in wooden and fiberglass boxes and metal drums, were shipped to the Arco desert in the 1970s and ’80s, where all of it eventually was buried.

Today, the majority of the environmentally dangerous transuranic waste has been excavated by two government contractors: CH2M-WG Idaho or CWI, which operates the Accelerated Retrieval Project, and the Idaho Treatment Group, which operates the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project.

After it’s pulled from the ground, the waste is examined before being treated, packaged and sealed – usually in 55-gallon steel drums – and shipped to WIPP.

Without WIPP, drums are stacking up. More than 400 shipments are ready to go and that number is growing daily. Storage facilities at the site could be at capacity as soon as Sept. 30, said Ben Roberts, DOE transuranic waste program manager.

Initially, the plan was to build more warehouses. But DOE and the contractors have hatched a different solution, Roberts said. It involves repurposing an aircraft-carrier-sized building initially built to cover a huge mound of dirt where much of the Rocky Flats waste was buried.

With most of that waste pulled from the ground, thousands of square feet can be used to store waste drums awaiting shipment. That should store 21,000 drums and buy two or three more years’ time, Roberts said.

It’s unlikely the Idaho cleanup effort will ship anything to New Mexico until at least 2017. Even then, several other cleanup facilities elsewhere also will be hoping to send their glut of radioactive waste all at once.


In 1995, the state of Idaho, U.S. Navy and DOE reached what is known as the Batt Agreement, executed by former Gov. Phil Batt. It settled a lawsuit and laid out strict deadlines for when certain types of radioactive waste had to be out of Idaho.

WIPP’s closure could mean DOE violates several of those state-mandated deadlines. It will violate one at the end of this month, which requires a running average of 2,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste to be moved out of the state per year.

That same running average violation could occur next year, too, or for as many years as transuranic waste remains stranded in Idaho.

And if WIPP’s reopening is delayed much longer, officials said it’s possible DOE will miss a Dec. 31, 2018, deadline for when all transuranic waste is supposed to be gone from the state.

“It’s going to be a big deal here, because we’re not going to meet the settlement agreement,” said Bob Skinner, a retired radioactive waste manager for CWI.

Those will not be DOE’s first unmet cleanup deadlines in Idaho. It already passed one that said all liquid radioactive waste had to be treated by the end of 2012. That requirement remains unmet because of ongoing problems with a treatment facility.

When DOE misses a settlement deadline, it’s no longer allowed to bring in spent nuclear fuel to the INL site for storage, explains Susan Burke, INL coordinator for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. When DOE missed the settlement agreement’s 2012 deadline, that consequence already went into effect, she said. Missing another deadline at the end of this month won’t change anything.

“It’s sort of like being convicted for two corresponding crimes, and you’re serving the time together,” Burke said.

In the meantime, DOE officials are trying to show they are making all the headway they can.

For example, cleanup efforts recently focused on low-level waste that is accepted at waste disposal facilities other than WIPP, in both Utah and Nevada.

Read more here: http://www.idahostatesman.com/2014/12/22/3554717/nuke-waste-shipments-in-limbo.html#storylink=cpy