Ten years after: The first trip to WIPP

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By Roger Snodgrass

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only functioning nuclear waste repository, marked the 10th anniversary of its first radioactive waste shipment Thursday.

On March 26, 1999, a truck from Los Alamos National Laboratory arrived at the isolated facility in southeastern New Mexico, now commonly known by its initials, WIPP.

Several LANL officials, part of a large team effort focused on the shipment, recalled the night before that first load left the hill.

“It was a very exciting time,” said Stan Kosiewicz, an analytical chemist, who was involved in solving some of the final technical questions that enabled the shipments to begin. It was a time and a memory he savors.

Out of concern about sabotage, the decision had been made to dispatch the truck in the middle of the night.

“Pajarito Road was shut down to all traffic,” Kosiewicz recalled. “They had patrols going up and down with armed guards. This all added to the suspense of the moment.”

The truck was scheduled to leave at 12:30 a.m., according to a lab article at the time, but was delayed by reports of thick fog along the route until nearly 8 p.m. the next evening.

Standing at the gate with LeRoy N. Sanchez and John Bass of the lab’s communications office, who were there to record the momentous occasion, Kosiewicz taped the grand exit.

“This is it. It’s happening,” Bass can be heard as his camera rolled. “The truck is going to go through and I’m going to call on my cell phone and notify the press that it happened. It happened right here.”

“The shipment came out of the gate and made a hairpin turn,” Kosiewicz said. “As the truck driver went down the hill he tooted his horn.”

Kosiewicz said he would always remember the receding “Doppler effect” of the horn as the truck disappeared.

“There were fears that protesters might form a human chain at the Otowi Bridge,” Kosiewicz said, “that somebody would try to bazooka it, or ram it.”

Dennis Erickson, the lab’s director for Environmental Health and Safety, said he was on the scene the night of the first shipment.

“I was more of an observer,” he said. “I remember a sense of fear and trepidation in northern New Mexico and this real sense of danger in terms of the pathway for the WIPP transports, which turned out to be ill-founded in retrospect. As we knew, public safety had been well taken care of.”

David Janecky, a geochemist, now deputy group leader in the Ecology and Air Quality Group, was running the computer codes and the software, for the quality assurance and regulatory sign-offs at the time.

He also had a GPS system that tracked the shipment across the bridge, around Santa Fe on the relief route and south through Kline’s Corner and Vaughan.

“We watched it go all the way down to WIPP,” he said. “That was part of the software that allowed us to show confidence that we knew what was happening for this shipment of what really was lab trash to get to WIPP.”

Nothing bad happened

On the other side of the issue, Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, recalled the heavy security along the route around Santa Fe.

“That first shipment was Cassini waste (from NASA’s Saturn expedition), not defense waste that WIPP was authorized to receive,” she said. “It contained plutonium in a respirable form. We recognized the hazard and asked everybody to stand back.”

She recalled a heavily armed presence, especially at the Airport Road intersection on route to the Interstate, where “a block of SWAT-type people were lined up on both sides of the road and we could see and hear the Blackhawk helicopters.”

CCNS got its start 11 years before, quickly mobilizing the community to address concerns about what had been plans to transport waste on Santa Fe’s main north-south artery, St. Francis Drive.

Ten years after its opening, Arends said, “The WIPP site is safer because of citizen involvement in the process and the additional regulation of the facility.”

The day of the historic shipment across the state of New Mexico was the culmination of nine years of hearings and studies, five years of construction and another 11 years of a political and legal standoff.

“Earlier today, the first shipment of radioactive transuranic waste from the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory arrived safely at our Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, 26 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico,” then Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said in the text of his down-linked broadcast to the lab.  

“This shipment represents the beginning of a long overdue promise to America to clean up our nation's cold war legacy of nuclear waste, and to permanently isolate this waste from people and the environment.”

Not long before that, U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn had overturned a court injunction and cleared the way for the shipment from LANL to WIPP. He ruled that the waste from Los Alamos was not hazardous under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

After that first shipment, another 16 truckloads went from Los Alamos to the repository before the end of the year.

But then there was a pause of about a year-and-a-half before shipments resumed again, while Idaho National Laboratory and Rocky Flats issued a steady stream of waste to WIPP.

Since its opening, WIPP has taken in 7,200 shipments of transuranic waste, according to an anniversary press release from the plant.

WIPP trucks have traveled the equivalent of 33 roundtrips to the moon. The salt formation 2,150 feet below ground level has taken in about a third of its legislated capacity.

Milestones in WIPP

Chronology of key events relating to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, as reported by The Associated Press:

1956 – National Academy of Sciences committee recommends disposal in salt deposits.

1974 – Site 30 miles east of Carlsbad chosen for exploratory work.

1977 – Energy Research and Development Administration, predecessor of Department of Energy, tells Nuclear Regulatory Commission it will request license for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

1979 – Congress authorizes WIPP for disposal of radioactive waste from defense facilities.

1980 – DOE issues environmental impact statement.

1982 – Underground excavation begins.

1985 – EPA issues radioactive waste disposal standards for WIPP.

1989 – DOE applies to Interior Department to withdraw 10,240 acres of federal land around site from public use; NRC approves redesigned shipping containers.

1990 – DOE issues final supplement environmental impact statement.

1996 – Attorneys general of Texas and New Mexico sue EPA, claiming federal agencies’ closed-door discussions watered down final technical standards. Congress passes land withdrawal amendments, exempting repository from federal land disposal restrictions.

1997 – EPA deems DOE's certification application complete. U.S. Court of Appeals upholds EPA criteria for determining whether WIPP complies with environmental standards, rejecting arguments by Texas and New Mexico.

1998 – DOE issues rules for burying waste. State releases draft permit for mixed waste. Then Attorney General Tom Udall sues to stop repository pending state’s permit.

1999 – Federal judge refuses to block shipments pending state permit; first shipment leaves Los Alamos days later; arrives at WIPP at 3:36 a.m. March 26.

2000 – First shipment of mixed waste arrives under state permit.

2003 – Panel 1 is filled.

2005 – Final shipment of transuranic waste from Rocky Flats arrives. Panel 2 is filled.

2006 – EPA recertifies WIPP.

2007 – First shipment of remote-handled waste arrives.

Facts about nuclear waste repository

A look at facts about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, as reported by The Associated Press:

• Drums or boxes of waste are carried to WIPP by truck. Special containers called Trupact-2 hold 55-gallon drums or waste boxes.

Each Trupact, 10 feet high and 8 feet wide, consists of a protective stainless steel skin, polyurethane foam impact liner and ceramic fiber insulation. They weigh 12,750 pounds empty; 19,250 pounds full.

Three Trupacts are carried on flatbed trucks tracked by satellite.

• Waste is buried in rooms 2,150 feet underground in ancient salt beds. The storage area eventually will consist of 56 large rooms — each about 300 feet long by 33 feet wide by 13 feet high. WIPP could eventually hold up to 850,000 55-gallon drums of waste, more than 6 million cubic feet.

• WIPP is expected to receive about 38,000 shipments over a 35-year life, largely from federal sites in California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Tennessee, South Carolina and Washington.