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Lab completes round of hot waste deliveries

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By Roger Snodgrass

It wasn’t easy getting started, but after the first canisters of remote-handled waste made it out of Los Alamos National Laboratory, they have been rolling down the road on a regular basis.

On Thursday afternoon, almost exactly a month after the first shipment departed, the laboratory announced that the 16th and final load took off for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico.

In the month that followed, the campaign averaged four deliveries a week.

“Any time you put waste on the road and get it to a safe depository like WIPP, it’s good,” said George Rael, environmental operations manager for the Los Alamos Site Office.

“We didn’t have any major problems,” he said. “This was done safely.”

Each shipment was hauled in a specially designed cask with shielded lead cylinders and other protections. On an open flatbed trailer cask looked like a dumbbell bound for a colossal gym.

In fact they were big loads of radioactive trash bound for subterranean safekeeping outside Carlsbad. Each canister contained three 55-gallon drums holding materials that were once used in “hot cell” enclosures at the laboratory.

The trash included such things as rags, tools, plastics, glassware and miscellaneous items.

“We completed the job on time and safely,” said Michael Graham, who heads environmental programs at the laboratory, in a statement released Thursday afternoon.  “The shipment is a key milestone toward achieving our cleanup responsibilities.”

LANL has been sending transuranic waste to WIPP since it opened ten years ago, but these drums that were stored in vertical shafts at Area G have a high enough dose count that they have to be handled at a distance from human operators.

WIPP documents indicate that only about 4 percent of the waste received at WIPP is remote-handled, which was first approved for disposal there by the New Mexico Environment Department in 2006.

Transuranic waste is a classification unique to the U.S. Also known as TRU-waste, it is defense-related nuclear waste containing a specific level of radioactive elements with atomic numbers higher than uranium, which is No. 92.

Getting radioactive materials out of storage at Area G and into a permanent configuration at WIPP has been a major long term project at LANL.

Efforts that began as early as 1993 were beset by various delays, legal and regulatory challenges, unanticipated difficulties, budget problems, strategic pauses and retooling.

A story from the laboratory News Bulletin in October 2006 expressed optimism that the waste from the underground shafts in Area G would make it to WIPP within the next year.

In February 2008, another story described environmental managers decision to announce a pause in operations at Area G “to assess the progress we’ve made so far and identify areas for additional approval.”

Technical disagreements with the New Mexico Environment Department about characterizing the waste resulted in further delays.

A revised permit signed on May 22, finally opened the gate and enabled the remote-handled shipments to begin.

“We know how to do this work up here on the contractor and the federal government side,” said Rael. “Once we can get it into, we know how to do it and it works well.”