Historic shipment heads for haven

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By Roger Snodgrass

Shortly after 5 p.m. Tuesday, the first of 16 canisters containing remote-handled waste (RHW) lumbered out of Los Alamos National Laboratory bound for southern New Mexico.

“It’s out of Los Alamos and off to its permanent repository where it’s safe for the long term,” said Michael Graham, LANL associate director for environmental programs. “It’s been here since the early ’90s and it’s going to its final resting place.”

The shipment was another milestone in the history of transporting transuranic waste from the laboratory to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which received its first batch of transuranic waste from LANL for permanent disposal 10 years ago.

Until now, the waste that has gone to the Carlsbad repository has been contact-handled, meaning that it could be manipulated more easily because it contained a lower level of radioactivity.  

Both contact-handled and remote-handled wastes are made up of discarded “tools, rags, protective clothing, sludge, soil and other materials contaminated with radioactive elements that have atomic numbers greater than uranium (transuranic).”

RHW contains much more penetrating Beta and Gamma-ray particles, which is why it has to be handled by machine in special radiation-shielded rooms called Hot Cells and transported in special equipment designed to withstand accidents.

The final launch seemed effortless, belying years of planning and preparation, months of delays and negotiations and procedural evolutions, and long hours of readiness and walk-throughs.

With the truck and crew of two waiting for the final signal, managers and many members of the shipment team looked on.

“Once you start the process and see successes, people get positive and motivated,” said George Rael who manages Environmental Operations for the Los Alamos Site Office. “They have proven they can do that and can say we did it safely.”

A final clearance by the New Mexico Environment Department on April 16, accepted a report with a formal declaration of the contents of the canisters and where the material was used.

Last week, the canister, holding three 55-gallon drums of radioactive trash were withdrawn from a vertical shaft by crane and sheathed in a special cask. The lead-lined cask, capped by cylindrical bumpers at each end, was then fixed tightly in a rig on the bed of a truck.

“It was just perfectly well-done, using proper procedures and everything went off without a hitch,” Rael said. “We have a lot of work to do, but this is progress and that’s a good feeling.”

The laboratory plans to prepare three to four shipments per week until the remaining 15 canisters are gone.

WIPP has conducted more than 7,200 shipments of transuranic waste since opening in 1999, including more than 200 shipments of RHW.

Many more drums of RHW remains buried at Area G, but how, when and whether they will be removed has yet to be determined.

Removal or permanent disposal of the RH waste is part of ongoing efforts to close Area G by 2015, as required in the NMED consent order, to which Los Alamos National Laboratory and the National Nuclear Security Administration of the Department of Energy are parties.

Beyond the 16 canisters, future shipments will depend on discussions with NMED and final decisions about how the radioactive disposal area, Area G, will be closed out.

“It depends on how much waste we leave and how much we send,” said Graham. “That’s still part of the consent order.”

According to an announcement from WIPP this morning, the LANL shipment arrived safely at its destination.