Field Notes Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at Carlsbad, New Mexico, USA

Deep geological repositories (DGRs) are widely considered the best, safest option for the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel (SNF), minimizing the need for future maintenance. As a country develops nationally-appropriate approaches for SNF disposal, case studies on existing global geological repositories for low and intermediate level waste (LILW) and transuranic waste (TRU) should also be considered. These repositories will serve as lesson-learned references for future DGRs in the next decades.

Stimson experts Cindy Vestergaard and Trinh Le visited the only deep geological repository in the United States – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant which is licensed to permanently dispose of transuranic radioactive waste for 10,000 years from nuclear weapons production facilities and cleanup sites.

aerial photograph of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

Carlsbad is a city in southeast New Mexico (NM) which has a population of 28,774.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) facility, located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, was constructed during the 1980s in an ancient salt bed at 2,150 ft. (655 m) deep. In 1979, the U.S. Congress authorized the WIPP facility and in 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency certified WIPP for safe, long-term disposal of defense-generated transuranic (TRU) wastes.

Since the first disposal on 26 March 1999, WIPP has cleaned up all legacy TRU waste from 22 generators sites nationwide. The repository has eight panels of which each consists of seven rooms. With this design, the repository is expected to dispose of more than 170,000 cubic meters of waste.

What is TRU Waste?

TRU waste is contaminated with man-made radioactive elements such as plutonium. There are two categories of TRU waste: contact-handled (CH) and remote-handled (RH). Both CH and RH waste are basically made up of the same type of materials such as rags, tools, laboratory equipment, protective clothing, and soil. The distinction between the two categories is based on the level of radiation the waste emits. For example, if the above materials emit relatively little radiation (less than 200 mrem), they are contact-handled. Otherwise, they are remote-handled waste. TRU waste disposed at WIPP is mostly contact-handled, so workers experience a low level of radiation on average.

How do we track TRU waste?

All the TRU waste shipped and disposed of at WIPP is tracked by a database of containers and volumes of TRU. This is done by documenting all information on how a TRU waste stream was created and managed. Documentation methods include historical records such as sampling and assay records; quality control data and information about the process that generated the waste; physically opening and examining the waste while videotaping its contents; and radiography.

WIPP community outreach

According to WIPP, leadership and staff contribute actively in community outreach programs within the region. The facility engages surrounding schools from elementary to college levels to educate students about the process. Additionally, a quarterly WIPP Town Hall meeting is held at the Carlsbad City Hall and is open to all members of the public, as well as being available in real-time on the internet. In the December 2018 meeting, WIPP presented 2018-2019 community commitment plan with $500,000 monetary donations and 2,500 volunteer hours.

A low-level waste repository

In 2014, there were incidents resulting in a cost of $500 million and three years of cleanup. On the legal side, WIPP is subject to Transportation Safety Plan laws and regulations , including congressional WIPP Land Withdraw Act , Environmental Protection Agency certification, Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Act. The Land Withdraw Act prohibits WIPP from accepting any spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste, even for testing purposes. Therefore, WIPP remains a low-level waste (LLW) repository.

WIPP is designed for the permanent disposal of defense-generated transuranic waste and therefore is not subject to IAEA safeguards. On December 2017, the IAEA visited the WIPP to examine the potential for IAEA monitoring of surplus plutonium disposition, given that the U.S. Department of Energy has initiated termination of the plutonium fuel (MOX) project in accordance with the Congressional direction.

Per the Land Withdrawal Act, WIPP is limited to 175,000 cubic meters of defense-generated TRU waste. The amount of TRU waste already emplaced at WIPP does not leave much room for more material under the cap. Therefore, WIPP is creating additional disposal space for the current inventory of TRU waste. A design layout concept has been identified with the final design expected to be complete in 2019. Therefore, the timeline for permanent closure will be extended to 2050 to allow for disposal in the additional panels.

The site visit to Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is part of an effort to learn national approaches to radioactive waste disposal. Technical and societal experiences with existing repositories for low and intermediate level waste will be valuable as a country designs and operates a future for deep geological repository for high level waste and spent nuclear fuel disposal.


U.S. Dept of Energy, WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant)

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