WIPP Receives First Shipment of RH Waste

WIPP Receives First Shipment of RH Waste

The first shipment of remote-handled transuranic radioactive waste arrived at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) on Tuesday January 23rd, a WIPP spokeswoman said.

WIPP is an underground radioactive waste repository located 26 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, which opened in March 1999. The waste is disposed in a salt formation 2,150 feet underground. Transuranic waste from the research and production of nuclear weapons is disposed of at WIPP.

Transuranic waste is radioactive waste contaminated by elements heavier than uranium, such as plutonium, and it is a man made alpha-emitter. The emitted alpha-particles cause cancer when they enter the body through inhalation or ingestion.

Transuranic waste is classified into two groups, contact-handled (CH) and remote-handled (RH) depending on the intensity and character of the radioactive emissions. Both forms of transuranic waste are too hazardous for the general public to be in contact with. However, the Department of Energy (DOE) allows its employees to work directly with drums of CH waste. RH waste emits gamma rays, which are able to penetrate metal, such as the drums. It is too dangerous for workers to come into direct contact with, so they must use remote operators to handle the disposal containers.

RH waste is higher level transuranic waste than has been previously disposed of at WIPP. DOE, which owns and operates WIPP, has slated the nationŐs RH waste for WIPP since the facility's inception. However DOE's inadequate permit documents, public opposition and safety risks kept the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) from permitting its disposal there.

In October, 2006 NMED issued a revised permit for WIPP. This permit was intended to modify the original operating permit, as requested by DOE, to include disposal of RH waste among other changes.

The first shipment of RH waste left the Idaho National Laboratory on Thursday, January 18th and arrived four days later at WIPP at around 10:30 p.m. The shipment was stopped for three days at an Air Force base in Colorado due to severe winter weather including heavy snow and ice.

At the same time, federal nuclear safety officials have criticized DOE for its inability to safely dispose of the high risk radioactive waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) which is awaiting disposal at WIPP. A.J. Eggenburger, chairman of the Defense Nuclear Securities Board, told DOE Secretary Samuel Bodman, that if DOE cannot come up with a timely plan to transport the waste, "urgent action" must be taken to improve storage safety.

Following the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire and the events of September 11th, DOE developed a "Quick to WIPP" program to expedite the transportation of LANL's most radioactive waste. The program was supposed to be completed by the end of 2004. However, the program is already two years behind schedule and LANL officials have stated that it will be delayed at least another year, leaving approximately 20,000 drums of waste under tents in temporary above ground storage.

Joni Arends said, "This security risk has gone on too long. DOE needs to build hardened on site storage for this waste at LANL."

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