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Officials are optimistic that the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s transuranic waste campaign will remain on schedule even though there was a fire underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad this week.
“We have already exceeded our shipping goal for this February and fully expect to meet our shipping goal for March,” lab spokesman Matt Nerzig said. “The lab has surpassed shipping goals for the 3706 TRU Waste Campaign since the project began, exceeding our goals for nine consecutive quarters.”
The Los Alamos Monitor learned if WIPP reopens on or before March 10, the shipment schedule should stay on schedule.
New Mexico Department of Environment spokesman Jim Winchester added, “Based on our preliminary conversations with representatives of WIPP, we are cautiously optimistic the suspension of WIPP processing will not delay the LANL TRU Waste Campaign. We continue to remain in close contact with WIPP about when operations will resume.
“ Despite this incident, WIPP has a proven track record and we continue to have the utmost confidence in their operations and regulatory compliance.”
On Feb. 5, a truck used to move salt at the underground facility caught fire. Officials say they don’t yet know what caused the truck fire that forced an evacuation of the underground site.
A spokesman says an investigation will be conducted at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where low level waste from the nation’s nuclear weapons plants is stored in salt beds.
The site was evacuated and six people were treated for smoke inhalation.
DOE said it is uncertain when operations will resume.
The Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor reported this week that WIPP’s annual extended maintenance outage was scheduled to begin on Feb. 14 and last until March 10, which would have suspended shipments and disposal operations anyway.
“Due to the upcoming annual WIPP maintenance evolution, scheduled Feb. 14 to March 10, we anticipate that this event will impact only a limited number of shipments,” DOE Carlsbad Field Office spokeswoman Deb Gill said in a written response.
But DOE Carlsbad spokesman Roger Nelson said in a press conference immediately following the event: “That maintenance outage will likely be affected,” adding, “How, I can’t speculate at this point in time. But an event of this magnitude will certainly have some effect on the planned maintenance DOE is currently preparing to conduct an accident assessment to determine when WIPP may reopen.
“WIPP personnel continue to work through plans and procedures to make sure the facility is ready to resume normal operations when that occurs,” Gill said. “DOE will convene an investigation team comprised of Federal subject matter experts to be determined. WIPP will resume normal operations when it is determined by DOE authorities and the WIPP Management and Operating Contractor that it is appropriate to do so.”
DOE, NNSA and LANL are in a framework agreement with the New Mexico Environment Department as part of the Consent Order signed in 2005.
In early 2012, the lab announced it was starting the 3,706 Transuranic Waste Campaign where it would send 3,706 cubic meters to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
Officials at the NNSA Los Alamos Site Office have said it was not possible for DOE to meet the Consent Order by 2015. State officials have refused to negotiate the end of the Consent Order, but both sides have worked on prioritizing its waste shipment goals. The Consent Order between NMED and the lab was signed on March 1, 2005.
The Order provides the timetable and requirements for environmental clean-up of hazardous constituents for the laboratory.
TRU waste consists of clothing, tools, rags, debris, soil and other items contaminated with radioactive material, mostly plutonium. Transuranic elements such as plutonium have an atomic number greater than uranium, so they are labeled transuranic, for “beyond uranium” on the periodic table of elements.