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Los Alamos National Laboratory has reached a milestone in its campaign to ship transuranic (TRU) waste from Cold War-era nuclear operations to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad.
This month, the lab surpassed 100,000 plutonium-equivalent curies of TRU waste shipped to WIPP, about one-third of the lab’s total.
The waste, sent from LANL to WIPP in more than 750 shipments since 1999, has amounted to several hundred pounds of radioactive residue on gloves, lab equipment, and protective clothing.
As of May 23, there have been 789 shipments from LANL with close to 270,000 miles in transport.
A curie is a measure of radioactivity for a given element. About 190,000 plutonium-equivalent curies remain to be shipped in 10,000 containers currently stored above ground and another 6,000 retrievably buried.
“It’s very important to get this waste material to WIPP. It’s part of our commitment to this community and to New Mexico,” said George Rael, environmental projects assistant manager for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Los Alamos Site Office. “The repository has a proven record of safe and secure operations.”
As remaining drums are shipped, the lab is demolishing unused storage facilities in a multiyear plan to close the waste site.
“Safety and environmental stewardship are core values within the lab’s national security missions,” said LANL’s TRU waste program director Kathryn Johns-Hughes. “We’re proud to contribute to WIPP’s safe transportation record and the Department of Energy’s national mission to disposition this material.
LANL has ramped up its TRU shipping in the last two years, with more than 300 shipments completed safely since 2009.
“The Carlsbad Field Office and WIPP join in recognizing this LANL milestone,” said WIPP spokeswoman Deb Gill. “The Department of Energy is committed to safely cleaning up the nation’s transuranic waste, which continues to reduce or eliminate risk to the public and the environment by reducing our nation’s legacy waste footprint.”
Generally, TRU waste consists of clothing, tools, rags, debris, soil and other items contaminated with radioactive elements, mostly plutonium. These man-made elements have atomic numbers greater than uranium, thus transuranic, or beyond uranium on the periodic table of the elements. Waste is packaged in drums or boxes that are then placed in a large, steel shipping container called a TRUPACT-II.
According to WIPP, a TRUPACT-II container costs $400,000, is constructed with inner and outer containment vessels, measures 8 feet in diameter and 10 feet high and holds up to 14 55-gallon drums, two standard waste boxes or a 10-drum overpack.
Shipping to WIPP is a collaborative effort. LANL crews inspect and repackage Cold War-era waste drums to comply with WIPP’s acceptance requirements. WIPP crews then certify the TRU drums for disposal in accordance with a DOE program approved by federal and New Mexico regulators. WIPP mobile loading crews load the TRUPACT-IIs, perform final inspections, receive a New Mexico inspection, and execute the shipment.
During a shipment, drivers work in pairs to assure the truck and payload are attended to at all times. Inside the tractor cab, there is a computer keyboard linking the vehicle with a satellite tracking system. WIPP drivers are required to stop every 150 miles to check on their payload and the trucks are also subject to inspection at state ports of entry.
When the shipment gets to WIPP, here is what happens.
• A waste shipment arrives at the WIPP by tractor-trailer, each containing up to three TRUPACT-IIs or HalfPACTs. Upon arrival, the tractor trailer and TRUPACT-IIs/HalfPACT’s undergo a security inspection, a radiological survey, and a shipping documentation review.
• Once the shipment checks are completed, the tractor-trailer will be parked near the Waste Handling Building for additional inspection and radiological survey.
• A forklift is used to transfer each container from the trailer, through an air lock, and into the Waste Handling Building.
• Inside the Waste Handling Building, each container is placed in a TRUDOCK, which holds it in place while workers unload the waste.
• An overhead crane is used to remove the container’s lids.
• Radiological surveys are conducted throughout the waste handling process to confirm waste containers have not sustained damage during shipment or waste container removal.
• The overhead crane then removes the waste containers from the TRUPACT-II/HalfPACT and places them on a facility pallet. The three different waste container configurations are two seven-packs (55-gallon steel drums configured in seven packs), two standard waste boxes, or one ten-drum overpack.
• A forklift moves the loaded facility pallet to the conveyance loading car inside the air lock at the waste handling shaft.
• The conveyance loading car is used to load the facility pallet onto the waste hoist (mine elevator).
• The waste hoist descends 2,150 feet to the WIPP repository.
• An underground transporter pulls the loaded facility pallet off the hoist onto the transporter bed and moves the waste to the appropriate disposal room.
• A forklift removes the waste containers from the facility pallet and moves the waste to the disposal area.
• Bags of magnesium oxide are placed on top of and around the containers to serve as backfill. The magnesium oxide will control the solubility of radionuclides and is an added measure of assurance to long-term repository performance.