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DOE: WIPP could be closed for three years

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By The Staff

 

The head of the recovery effort at the federal government’s nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico said late last week it could be up to three years before full operations resume at the underground facility.

Recovery manager Jim Blankenhorn made the announcement when answering questions from the public during a weekly meeting in Carlsbad. He said the timeline continues to be a moving target, but full operations are expected to resume no earlier than 18 months from now.

Crews continue investigating the cause of a radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad that exposed some workers and halted operations in February.

Specially trained workers have been making trips into the repository in an effort to pinpoint the source of the release. Based on those trips, the focus has turned to a set of waste drums that came from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Officials at the meeting reiterated the possibility that there may have been a chemical reaction inside the drums. They were then questioned about what would happen to that waste if it’s deemed unsafe to store.

“If we find a problem with this waste stream, it’s a chemistry problem,” Blankenhorn said. The Los Alamos lab has “some of the best scientists in the world. It would be up to them to develop a path forward to give us treated, safe waste.”

New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said the theory of a chemical reaction is based on limited knowledge, and he urged officials during the meeting not to withhold any information. Flynn said he’s concerned the public will lose faith if federal officials change their story every couple of weeks about what might have happened.

“We need to know what happened. We absolutely need to know,” he said. “But we need to make decisions based on facts.”

WIPP and Department of Energy officials vowed to continue to update the public on the recovery process and to keep the safety of their workers and the public in the forefront.

Officials have pointed to safety as the reason they decided earlier this month to halt shipments from Los Alamos to a temporary storage facility in West Texas. The shipments had been going on for about a month due to the closure of the plant. A lab spokesman confirmed that shipments to the West Texas facility have not restarted.

According to the Friday WIPP update from DOE, scientists and technical experts from across the DOE complex have been incorporating information collected from the re-entry teams and environmental sample analysis to narrow down the list of potential causes of the release.

WIPP has determined that the radiological release was not the result of a partial roof collapse in the mine, or a bolt falling from the roof and puncturing a container.

The press release said that visual examinations in Room 7 of Panel 7 have shown that several magnesium oxide bags, placed on top of waste containers to prevent radioactive material from being released into the environment over a 10,000-year period, were damaged. 

WIPP is still working to determine what caused the damage to the magnesium oxide bags.

The WIPP team is evaluating the contents of a set of waste drums that came from Los Alamos National Laboratory that are located in Panel 7, the location of the event. The team is looking at the possibility that a chemical reaction may have occurred within a drum, causing a potential release. As they evaluate this possibility

Researchers at Los Alamos and Savannah River National Laboratories are also conducting tests to see if the chemical processing of the waste streams in question could potentially have created an unstable chemical environment.

In Saturday’s Santa Fe New Mexican, Jim Conca, a geochemist who worked for the lab and WIPP, believes that a material similar to kitty litter is the likely cause of the radiation leak.

Conca told the newspaper that a company in charge of packing radioactive contaminated materials at LANL switched from a mineral absorbent to a wheat-based absorbent. Conca said the absorbent soaks up any liquids in the containers and remains as part of the mix that is shipped. The kitty litter switch could have created dried-out nitrate salts and led to a “mild” explosion in one or more of the waste containers, Conca told the New Mexican.

Los Alamos is under a tight deadline to get the plutonium-contaminated waste off its northern New Mexico campus before wildfire season peaks. 

Lab Director Charlie McMillan said Thursday during a news conference in Albuquerque that the recent developments “are very much a cause for concern.” But he said it was too soon to tell if they will have any effect on the lab’s ability to meet the state’s deadline. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.