US WIPP waste repository resumes operation

6 January 2017

Work has resumed at the underground US Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad in New Mexico after being closed for almost three years following a radiation leak in February 2014.

Twenty-one workers received low levels of radiation after a 55-gallon drum of radioactive waste ruptured releasing radioactivity which leaked to the surface. On 23 December, the Department of Energy (DOE) authorised WIPP to resume operations after confirming that pre-start corrective actions identified in the two operational readiness reviews had been completed. On 4 January  two pallets of 55-gallon drums of transuranic waste were transferred from a storage site above-ground and emplaced at WIPP near Room 5 in Panel 7, 2000 feet underground.

The DOE Operational Readiness Review (DORR) identified 21 pre-start findings that had to be resolved and validated before resumption of operations. Emergency preparedness, waste acceptance, fire protection, and other functional areas were addressed in the findings. A Contractor Operational Readiness Review (CORR) was also conducted over two weeks in October 2016. The report identified seven pre-start findings in the areas of emergency notification, initial response actions, emergency evacuation, personnel training and qualifications, and procedure management.

Transuranic waste was emplaced in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant yesterday for the first time in nearly three years. Waste emplacement had been suspended at WIPP since February 2014, when a ruptured waste barrel resulted in an underground release of radioactivity. The US Department of Energy (DOE) authorised operator Nuclear Waste Partnership to resume waste emplacement in the New Mexico facility on 23 December, confirming that all pre-start corrective actions identified in two operational readiness reviews and other required actions had been completed.

WIPP, privately operated under contract for DOE, was built for the disposal of radioactive refuse generated for decades by the DOE's network of nuclear weapons laboratories and development facilities. Following the accident, federal inspectors cited chronic lapses in safety procedures, They said chemically incompatible materials, including organic cat litter used as an absorbent, was packaged together in one of the waste drums sent to the disposal site from the Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe. The mix of organic material and nitrate salts inside the barrel sparked a chemical reaction, causing a buildup of heat and gases that breached the container, DOE concluded. DOE  agreed in April 2015 to pay New Mexico $73m as compensation for safety violations at the plant.

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