WIPP Waste Storage at
Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)

In the 25 years from 1971-1995, LANL has stored 55,000 drums of contact-handled transuranic (CH-TRU) waste and about 500 drums of remote-handled transuranic (RH-TRU) waste onsite to be retrieved in the future. (A "drum" means a 55-gallon drum of waste or its equivalent volume.) 35,000 of these drums are stored in fabric tents or domes in Area G. By 2022, LANL is expected almost to double its volume of TRU waste to 90,000 drums of CH-TRU waste and 950 drums of RH-TRU waste. It is expected LANL will be generating 1000-1500 drums of TRU waste per year. TRU waste and TRU mixed waste that is to go to WIPP is stored in four different ways at Area G of Technical Area 54?the primary active radioactive waste storage site at the Laboratory.

Pre-1971 TRU waste is permanently disposed of at LANL and will not to be sent to WIPP. Although volumes can only be estimated for this waste, there may be at least 12,500 drums of old TRU waste buried at Area G and other sites at LANL.

From 1971-1979 waste was buried at Area G in pits, trenches and shafts. The main difference between this waste and TRU waste buried before 1971 is that the later “retrievably” stored waste is more likely to be in some kind of container. Some is buried in small drums inside concrete casks; some is in drums placed in trenches on concrete pads and covered with dirt; and some waste was mixed with concrete, poured into corrugated metal pipe (CMP) and buried under dirt in trenches or pits. RH-TRU waste, which requires more shielding, was placed in deeper shafts which may or may not have been lined with CMP or concrete.

From 1979-1991, waste was placed in bermed storage?closely stacked drums on asphalt pads above ground and covered with dirt. In 1993, after holes were found in some of the bermed-storage waste containers, the State of New Mexico fined LANL $600,000 and required the lab to retrieve the waste from bermed storage and place it in tension supported, fire retardant treated fabric domes where it could be regularly inspected. These are the 4 storage domes in a row on the front, right side of the photo. This process is still going on today.

Pad 1, at the top right of the photo and on the left behind the 4 storage domes, was built over bermed storage. Those drums were then retrieved, processed, and moved to dome storage. Drums from Pad 1 were not vented. To the right of Pad 1 is another storage dome and next to that is bermed storage that has not been retrieved. Finally, on the far right is Pad 4. The drums in this bermed storage area were retrieved by December 1999 and have been placed in storage domes. These drums have been vented.

All waste generated after 1991 (and some generated after 1985) is stored in the fabric domes. (RH-TRU waste is retrievably buried in shafts) In 1991 the lab also began to separate TRU waste from TRU mixed waste in storage.

In the center of the photo is a large, new dome. This dome may be empty or may be storing waste from Pad 4. To the left or west of this dome are open low level waste (LLW) disposal pits and further to the west, processing domes. There are also two domes for low level mixed waste storage. (This waste, which is mixed radioactive and hazardous waste, is sent off site for disposal. Purely radioactive LLW is buried here at Area G.)

Most of the domes do not have fire suppression systems in them, ventilation systems or filtered exhaust air. Little of the waste has been properly characterized yet so, especially for the older waste, it is not known how much is purely radioactive and how much is mixed. It is also unknown if the release of flammable gases like hydrogen from the vented drums could cause a build up of this lighter-than-air gas under the ceilings of the domes. If this is the case, sparks which don’t ignite the domes but burn through the fabric could ignite any gas that may exist there.

Wildfire is not the only potential fire danger. There could be a storage facility fire which starts within a waste dome itself. The WIPP waste contains a lot of flammable gases which have build up in the drums. Human error might allow incompatible materials to be stored in the same drum causing an explosion or fire. This has already happened at DOE facilities. In fact, in 1989 there was a spontaneous depleted uranium fire in a waste drum at LANL. As of 1997, only two domes had fire suppressions systems. Fire from within a dome is not considered to be extremely likely so only the domes that are most at risk have these systems.

It is outrageous that the State of New Mexico and DOE have allowed this waste to remain in what are essentially tents. Especially since the 1998 LANL SWEIS (Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement for Continued Operation of the Los Alamos National Laboratory) predicted exactly the kind of fire we just experienced. The domes are RCRA-approved (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) but that doesn’t mean they are safe in a wildfire zone. In fact, LANL never built a bunker-type storage facility for this waste because of budgetary problems. They had to choose whether to build safe storage or to be the first to ship to WIPP. They chose the latter. Some states like Idaho, have forced DOE to move their waste into safe storage. We need to make sure New Mexico does this as well. As soon as it is safe to do so, these drums need to be moved into secure buildings like TA-55, TA-18, the Special Nuclear Storage Facility, etc. Then DOE can start building the storage we should have had years ago. After all, we are only at the start of the fire season. Even though there isn’t a lot of heavy vegetation around Area G, with high winds, flames can jump up to a mile as experienced in the Cerro Grande Fire. Shipping to WIPP is not the answer since it will take at least 10 years to move the tens of thousands of drums out of the domes.

Draft Waste Management Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, Summary, U.S. Department of Energy, August 1996
Final Environmental Impact Statement Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Volume 1, U.S. Department of Energy, October 1980
The 1996 Baseline Environmental Management Report, Volume III, U.S. Department of Energy, June 1996
An Assessment of the Flammability and Explosion Potential of Transuranic Waste, EEG-48, Matthew Silva, June 1991
Non-Point Source Summary for TA-54 SWMU-19-SH68, U.S. Department of Energy, December 1993
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Disposal Phase Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, U.S. Department of Energy, November 1996
Decontamination and Volume Reduction System for Transuranic Waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico Environmental Assessment (Draft) DOE-EA-1269, U.S. Department of Energy, Los Alamos Area Office, March 23,1999
Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement for Continued Operation of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, DOE/EIS-0238, U. S. Department of Energy, January 1999
Personal communications 3-12-97 and 3-13-97 with John Mack, Team Leader, Waste Management, DOE Los Alamos Area Office
Personal communication 3-12-97 with Ted Taylor, Program Manager, Environmental Restoration Program, Office of Environment and Projects, DOE Los Alamos Area Office
Personal communication on 5-18-00 with Joel Grim, LANL Site Engineer, Waste Management Division, DOE Albuquerque Office

Deborah Reade, May 2000