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WIPP storage plan draws concern

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Safety issues > Watchdog group says more resources needed to repair roof cave ins

By Tris DeRoma

A nuclear watchdog group raised concerns Friday with a plan to build above-ground storage of transuranic waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad.

The U.S. Department of Energy has applied for a permit with the New Mexico Environment Department for the new storage facility. 

Joni Arends of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety said the DOE should be concentrating on ongoing safety issues at WIPP, not expanding the facility with another above ground, permanent waste facility at the site. 

WIPP already has a similar facility for the same purpose.

“They never needed to use that surge to be able to store extra waste, so we don’t understand why DOE is proposing it,” Arends said.  

She also said that with the recent series of ceiling cave-ins that has caused the DOE to phase in a shut down of the southern part of the facility, safety should be the first priority. 

“We think that for worker safety and protecting the environment and human health, resources need to be put into closing that part of the mine where the roof falls have taken place,” Arends said. 

The permit would allow for the storage of waste up to one year at the proposed permanent facility. The storage facility will allow for the storage of 65,280 cubic feet of transuranic waste.

“The new Above Ground Storage Capacity project will add capacity to the WIPP facility to store transuranic mixed waste on the surface prior to disposal in the underground,” the DOE said in its permit. 

The DOE is also requesting the permit to help WIPP keep processing waste even in the event of planned or unplanned maintenance at the facility. The proposed facility would increase WIPP’s container storage capacity by over 25 percent. 

“In this situation the permittees will have the ability to process the waste that will be in storage in the new storage unit. The permittees can then schedule the removal and disposal of waste stored in the concrete overpacks during periods when shipments are slower, on a separate shift, or on weekends,” the DOE also said in its permit. The concrete overpacks are concrete boxes that can store 55, 85 or 100 gallon drums of waste. They are constructed in such a way that they are allowed to be stored above ground temporarily. They are made of steel reinforced concrete with a removable concrete lid.

WIPP closed in 2014 and shut down waste disposal. Since then, WIPP has been plagued with other problems, mainly roof collapse incidents caused by salt and rock coming loose in the salt-lined, cavernous facility that sits about 2,150 feet below ground. 

Earlier this month, DOE decided on a gradual closure of the south end of the facility because of ceiling cave ins in that section.

Greg Mello, executive director for the Los Alamos Study Group, said having another above ground facility there will just add to the dangers of transporting and storing waste at the facility.

 “The risk is that the more things that WIPP does, the more waste handling that it does the greater the overall risk of creating a dirty site that becomes an environmental liability. The waste generator sites are already dirty,” Mello said. 

However, he also said WIPP could be a valuable asset, if managed properly.

“The Study Group thinks that WIPP is necessary and should be managed well and reopened. It’s a facility that the United States needs,” Mello said. 

What he’s also worried about is the WIPP’s future usefulness.

“On the other hand, we really cast a jaundiced eye on the continued operation,” he said. “It’s one thing to clean up the legacy of the past, it’s quite another thing to have an unlimited future waste generating stream which we have. WIPP will never be big enough to handle the waste generated from decades of future nuclear weapons production that’s now planned.”