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With the nation’s only underground nuclear waste dump shuttered by a mysterious leak, Los Alamos National Laboratory has begun looking at alternatives for meeting a June deadline to remove toxic waste from a mesa on its northern New Mexico campus.
Lab spokesman Matthew Nerzig confirmed Tuesday that officials are exploring other options for removing the last of nearly 4,000 gallons of plutonium-contaminated tools and protective gear from its bomb-building labs if the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in Carlsbad remains closed indefinitely.
The presence of that waste — some of which was dug up from decades-old, unsealed dumps in the northern New Mexico mountains and is now stored outside with little protection — came to the public’s attention three years ago as a massive wildfire lapped at the edges of the sprawling lab property.
The lab has since agreed to have it all removed from the mesa by the end of June. The lab was ahead of schedule for getting the nearly 4,000 barrels to WIPP when back-to-back accidents and a radiation release closed the repository last month.
“We are determined to complete the campaign on time and meet our obligations to the state of New Mexico,” Nerzig said. “Toward that end, we are evaluating options to minimize any adverse impact of the WIPP event on LANL (the Los Alamos National Laboratory) and other transuranic waste-generator sites.”
He did not say, however, what those alternatives might be.
WIPP has been closed since early February. Shipments were halted after a truck hauling salt through the repository’s tunnels caught fire. Nine days later, the plant’s alarms were triggered by a radiation release. Officials say at least 17 workers were exposed to low levels of radiations, and radioactive particles have been detected in the air around the plant.
It could be weeks before workers can get underground to determine what happened and make an assessment about when the repository might be able to begin taking waste again.
According to the Nuclear Materials Monitor, the two most likely options for LANL involve temporary storage at the Waste Control Specialists commercial facility in Texas and Idaho National Laboratory.
“The entire DOE team is committed to meeting the 3,706 campaign. We are exploring alternatives both at commercial and federal sites,” Frank Marcinowski, DOE deputy assistant secretary for waste management, told the trade publication.
Marcinowski said sites have been instructed to keep packaging the waste.
“We don’t have a time frame for when we’ll be shipping back to WIPP but we aren’t slowing down any packaging,” DOE cleanup chief Dave Huizenga told the trade publication.”
The big challenge remains whether the campaign at LANL can be finished by the June 30 deadline.
The trade publication reported that NMED is “cautiously optimistic” DOE can meet its goal and deadline.
“I’ve been tough on these guys, and I’m impressed because I think when the government shut down, I was not very sympathetic … I felt like we set a goal and we can’t just say too bad,” environment secretary Ryan Flynn said.
Meanwhile, it’s apparent a decision has to be reached soon as to where LANL can make its shipments. The trade publication said the remaining LANL shipments could take close to three months to complete.
“We’ve got to evaluate all of our alternatives and make a decision in the next few weeks in order to keep that project on track and meet the June deadline,” Marcinowski said. “So we are going to be taking our evaluation, taking it back and discussing it with senior management and making our decision. I’d say over the next few weeks, but in a very short time frame.”
On Monday, meanwhile, Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) submitted a plan to the Energy Department to fully utilize the WIPP workforce to lead recovery activities from two recent incidents. Under this plan, all workers currently assigned to WIPP will be needed during recovery efforts.
“The department understands the value of utilizing the experience and expertise of the NWP workforce in all aspects for recovering from the recent fire and radiation release incidents,” said Joe Franco, manager of DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office.
NWP employees will be involved in investigating what caused the radiation release. They will also be involved in implementing any corrective actions once the investigations into each incident are complete.
DOE also reported that the sampling data from the ventilation system at the WIPP showed the filtration system worked as designed.
DOE said that the WIPP ventilation system proved more than 99 percent effective in capturing radioactive constituents during the recent release event.