.News Update 6/5/09 /09

LANL Ships RH-TRU Waste to WIPP

June 5, 2009

The first shipment of remote-handled transuranic waste recently left Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for disposal in the salt formations of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, located 26 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico. The shipment is the first of sixteen scheduled for completion this summer.

Remote-handled transuranic waste is radioactive waste generated through the manufacturing of plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons. In order to protect workers, the waste must be handled remotely because of the amount of radioactivity in the waste containers. Although the dose on the surface of the transportation container is about the same as the contact-handled waste that is also disposed of at WIPP, the potential hazards from an accident where a release takes place are much greater.

WIPP operates under a New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act permit, granted by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). The original permit, issued in 1999, prohibited the disposal of remote-handled, or RH, waste, even though WIPP officials had asked for it to be allowed by the permit. After previous attempts were unsuccessful, WIPP requested a modification of the permit to allow for disposal of RH-waste, which was supported by the Environment Department. After an extensive public hearing, the modified permit allowed for the disposal of RH-waste.

Since then, more than 220 shipments of RH-waste have been sent from Department of Energy (DOE) sites around the country, including the Oak Ridge, Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories, and the Savannah River Site, to WIPP. Most of the LANL canisters hold three 55-gallon drums filled with rags, tools, plastics, glassware and other equipment contaminated with fission products, such as cesium and strontium, as well as solidified radioactive solutions. The LANL waste was generated between 1986 and 1991 in Wing 9 of the old Chemical and Metallurgy Research Building. It has been stored in unlined shafts at LANL's low-level waste dump at Area G since 1995.

The permit requires that the waste must be characterized in order to determine if it meets the disposal criteria at WIPP. It allows WIPP to either physically examine the waste or conduct a document review. In the case of the LANL waste, a document review was conducted, which was recently approved by the Environment Department.

Michael Graham, LANL associate director for environmental programs, explained, "NMED asked us to begin shipments 'expeditiously,' and that's what we're doing. We've done training to demonstrate we meet the [DOE's] stringent nuclear safety requirements, and we're ready."

Don Hancock, of Southwest Research and Information Center, monitors WIPP waste shipments. He said, "It will be important to closely monitor how LANL handles the waste in removing it from the shafts to ensure that none of the containers has corroded while underground. In addition, the shipments of the more highly radioactive waste must be done carefully to avoid accidents. Thus, the first shipment leaving just before 5 p.m. from Los Alamos is not a good sign that LANL and WIPP are conscientious about avoiding times with high traffic volumes. Hopefully, future shipments will avoid such times."

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