Back in 1979, the nation was sitting on a tremendous pile of nuclear waste from decades of weapons production with no safe place to dispose of it permanently. The country looked to southeastern New Mexico for an answer.
That year, Congress authorized the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, in which storage vaults would be formed from ancient salt beds near Carlsbad more than 2,000 feet below the surface. Thirty-five years and several billion dollars later, WIPP is still the nation’s only deep geologic repository for nuclear waste.
And now it’s out of service.
Shut down indefinitely by two separate accidents in February — a truck fire underground and a radiation leak — its closure has had a ripple effect throughout the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons complex.
National laboratories and test sites from South Carolina to Idaho had pinned their hopes, and legally binding agreements, on WIPP for the cleanup of certain types of nuclear waste. A series of experiments designed to determine whether WIPP could expand its mission to accept “hotter” waste have been put on hold. All shipments to WIPP have been halted, and the WIPP contractor has said it could be at least three years before the plant reopens.
Meanwhile, initial reports about what happened underground to cause a hot reaction inside at least one of the drums — and how and why it happened — have called into question DOE’s management and oversight of the nation’s defense waste cleanup, including the numerous private contractors that handle day-to-day operations at WIPP and generator sites.
“They will have to investigate whether there was a wider breakdown of quality assurance in the weapons complex,” said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists global security program. “Until they’ve resolved that issue, it’s a concern. Hopefully they’ll put controls in place to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future, but the credibility of the department and WIPP has been damaged.”
John Heaton, who chairs Carlsbad’s Nuclear Task Force, says the community remains “absolutely committed to WIPP.” But he also says that, even as the focus of the investigation has shifted to how drums were packed before they reached WIPP, the “serious indictments of mismanagement and incompetence in terms of maintaining the facility” that were underscored in accident investigation reports have been a “huge, huge disappointment to the community.”
On Feb. 14, radiation escaped into the environment at levels deemed unharmful to health, while 21 workers tested positive for exposure to radiation, also at low levels.
“There are two recoveries that have to occur,” Heaton said, “the recovery of the plant and recovery of the public’s trust — and that is probably more difficult than recovering the plant.”
Nuclear sites depend on WIPP
WIPP took decades of planning and some $2.5 billion to open, and it’s the closest the country has ever come to an answer to its legacy of defense nuclear waste, even in part.
The leftovers of nuclear bomb production range from low-level to high-level waste and spent fuel, with something called “transuranic” waste in the middle — and that’s what WIPP was built to hold. Often called “TRU” waste, the drums of contaminated boots and gloves, machinery and sludge, are generally more radioactive than low-level waste but not as hot, in the thermal sense, as high-level waste or spent fuel.
In 1992, the year Congress passed the definitive law approving WIPP after a debate that began in the 1970s, there was estimated to be 158,640 cubic meters of legacy transuranic waste, mostly lurking a few feet underground at sites around the country, often inadequately dumped in cardboard boxes. WIPP was to be the final resting place for that waste.
That estimate did not include the excess volumes of low- and high-level waste from the nation’s defense program — a legacy the U.S. is still trying to resolve. Nor was WIPP ever intended to be a solution for the spent radioactive fuel accumulating at commercial power plants, for which there is no resolution in sight since President Barack Obama killed widely maligned plans for a repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.
WIPP has been filled to about 53 percent of its legal capacity, with more than 90,000 cubic meters of waste containers packed into enormous underground panels. Five of eight existing panels have been permanently sealed. Major waste-generating sites including national laboratories at South Carolina’s Savannah River, Idaho and Los Alamos have come close to completing key cleanup projects, thanks to WIPP’s existence.
Los Alamos National Laboratory has cleared 93 percent of the 3,706 cubic meters of transuranic waste it was supposed to dispose of by the end of the month; DOE recently confirmed it will not meet that deadline, due to WIPP’s closure. The lab remains under a consent order to remediate some 200,000 cubic meters of radioactive and hazardous waste in what’s known as “Area G,” some of which is believed to be transuranic, according to Scott Kovac of Santa Fe’s Nuclear Watch New Mexico. WIPP also takes the roughly 400 cubic meters of transuranic waste Los Alamos generates annually from its work maintaining and upgrading the weapons stockpile, Kovac said.
“We’re still paying the mortgage on the Cold War,” he said.
Savannah River shipped 95 percent of the 12,000 cubic meters of legacy transuranic waste destined for disposal at WIPP; the site had planned to finish packaging and shipping its legacy TRU waste this year, according to Tom Clements, director of the Savannah River Site Watch.
Idaho National Laboratory, which in recent years has been the top shipper to WIPP, must dispose of some 65,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste by 2018 at the latest. The project is 82 percent complete.
“That has always been to WIPP,” said Beatrice Brailsford, nuclear program director of the Snake River Alliance, an Idaho watchdog group. “Now I think that deadline probably is in jeopardy.”
$6 billion so far
Including its annual operating budget since 1998, more than $6 billion has been poured into WIPP since its inception, according to Don Hancock, a long-time WIPP observer with Albuquerque’s Southwest Research and Information Center.
The investigation into what happened underground on Valentine’s Day, what caused a hot reaction inside at least one Los Alamos drum, has so far hinged on the idea that incompatible materials were inappropriately mixed at that lab. That the country’s only geologic disposal site for nuclear waste could be thwarted by mismanagement somewhere in the DOE supply chain has frustrated stakeholders in New Mexico and across the country.
“When you think about Los Alamos as being the preeminent institution in terms of knowledge of explosives, that something like this would slip through their fingers really indicates several levels of breakdown, from the federal government to the contractors managing the labs,” said Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, who during the 1990s coordinated the Energy Department’s nuclear material strategic planning.
Whatever the exact cause turns out to be — an explosive mix of nitrates and organic matter such as kitty litter or neutralizing agents, or something else altogether — WIPP, DOE and its contractors will not escape unscathed. Two accident investigation reports done so far have cited dozens of systemic failures in oversight and safety and maintenance programs at the facility.
“I think that we’re really looking at an inexorable reality of having to shift toward safe surface storage containment,” said Alvarez. “Probably (the waste at sites around the country) is going to have to stay where it is in containers that can hold up for a long period of time while we sort this out. I’m afraid that’s the reality.”
DOE officials are planning for WIPP’s recovery even as the investigation plods on, according to Heaton. And WIPP’s supporters in Carlsbad want to see the facility reopened. “There is no reason in our minds that it cannot be put into premier condition,” Heaton said.
Both Idaho and Savannah River plan to continue remediating and packaging waste in the meantime, according to local observers.
At Savannah River, “if WIPP doesn’t reopen, it’s going to have a dual impact on packaged waste and the plutonium disposition program,” Clements said. “All DOE’s eggs are in the basket that WIPP is going to be reopened.”