Damaged Nuke Storage Dump to Reopen

Wednesday, October 8, 2014 @ 10:10 AM gHale

The Department of Energy (DoE) will clean up and resume initial operations at the federal government’s troubled nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico as early as 2016, at a cost of more than $240 million.

The timeline and cost details were in a recovery plan developed by the department over several months with help from nuclear industry experts. The plan outlines what needs to occur to decontaminate the underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

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Shipments of plutonium-contaminated waste from federal installations around the country have been on hold since early February. That’s when a truck fire and an unrelated release of radiation several days later contaminated 22 workers and forced the closure of the plant.

Mark Whitney, acting assistant secretary for the DoE’s Office of Environmental Management, said officials estimate 90 percent or more of the nuclear waste dump is free of radiological contamination. But the ventilation system will need improvement and a new exhaust shaft constructed before full operations can resume, Whitney said. That could take as long as three years and as much as an additional $309 million.

“Once we understand the extent of the contamination, we’ll have a better idea of what our approach to decontaminate will be,” he said. “But the report makes clear that the approach we’re looking at right now is not to remove the contamination, but to fix the contamination in place.”

One approach will involve spraying water on the half-mile-deep salt walls in which they built the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. The water will create a crust that will essentially encapsulate the contamination. In areas that might see heavy traffic or the use of large equipment, they would use a type of fixative instead of water.

The department said investigators have yet to pinpoint what caused the barrel of waste from the Los Alamos National Laboratory to breach Feb. 14 in one of the storage rooms at the nuclear dump. One theory has focused on a chemical reaction in highly acidic waste packed with a lead glove and organic cat litter to absorb moisture.

Investigators will not issue a final report on the cause until the end of the year.

Initial investigations into both accidents have blamed a slow erosion of safety culture at the site, something Whitney said the recovery plan aims to address.

Getting the nuclear dump back on track has been a top priority for the department given that the plant is the government’s only permanent repository for waste such as contaminated gloves, tools and clothing from decades of building nuclear bombs.

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