DOE Halts Idaho Shipments to WIPP

DOE Halts Idaho Shipments to WIPP

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has halted some radioactive shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) after liquid was found in a drum of what was supposed to be dry waste.

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 are very harmful when they enter the body through inhalation or ingestion.

In October 2006, the WIPP permit was modified to allow for the disposal of remote-handled transuranic waste, but also to include a confirmation procedure to determine that the waste had been characterized accurately before shipment from the generation site to WIPP.NMED WIPP Permit Page

The mis-characterized drum had been sent from the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). It had been cleared to be shipped after INL said it met all requirements, including that there were no liquids. The liquid was identified when workers double-checked the X-ray in compliance with the new confirmation procedure. The permit required that DOE halt INL shipments from the same waste stream. INL officials must report how the mistake occurred and how it will be fixed.

INL, which opened in 1949, performs diverse functions for DOE, including ongoing nuclear waste storage and disposal. The waste which is slated for WIPP was generated during nuclear weapons production at Rocky Flats, a facility which is no longer operational. Due to the source of the waste, it is likely that the liquid discovered in the drum is primarily solvents, which may be flammable. The waste is combustible.

INL had shipped almost 3,000 drums from the same waste stream before the confirmation requirement came into effect. Kerry Watson, manager of the DOE's WIPP office, said, "This just appears to be an isolated occurrence." However, DOE has not yet provided documentation for this claim.

It may be possible for DOE to ensure that no drums containing illegal materials passed through unnoticed. DOE recorded the preliminary X-rays of these drums. A review of these recordings may ensure that the previously shipped drums meet the waste confirmation requirements for WIPP. Were DOE to discover additional drums which had been mis- characterized, it would have drastic implications. The modified permit includes a provision which requires the suspension of all shipments from INL for an extended period of time should any more noncompliant waste be identified. This would dramatically reduce the number of shipments to WIPP since the majority of waste being shipped is from INL.

Don Hancock, of the Southwest Research and Information Center, said, "The discovery of prohibited liquids is a major problem, and requires substantial investigations by DOE so that the New Mexico Environment Department and the public know that the problems have been resolved and will not recur."

Back to News Index