Greater nuclear waste storage role for USA’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)

Changing nuclear landscape alters WIPP’s role  Local News Santa Fe  Apr 10, 2016. By Rebecca Moss The New Mexican When the salt bed trenches of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant were mined on the outskirts of Carlsbad in the mid-1980s, Congress dictated specific guidelines for what could be held within its chambers. Only low-level transuranic waste — rags, tools and even soil that had been contaminated with potent radiation through the creation and testing of nuclear weapons in the U.S. — could fill the 6.2 million-cubic-foot cavern more than 2,000 feet below ground.

Even within these limited parameters, finally approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1998, it took WIPP 20 years to open. When the first waste-bearing truck drove from Los Alamos to Carlsbad the following year, two women sat on the pavement and a man parked his car in the middle of the road, hoping to prevent its passage. Others waved American flags in support.

But in the 17 years since the facility opened, the nation’s nuclear landscape has changed. WIPP remains the world’s only underground geological repository for nuclear waste, and a confluence of budget constraints, geopolitical issues, the threat of terrorists obtaining nuclear materials and other concerns have led many to consider whether WIPP’s mission should be expanded to include not only higher levels of waste from the U.S. but also waste from around the world. Plans are already in motion to accept plutonium from Japan.

The U.S. now has 61.5 metric tons of plutonium that require a path to disposal — a path that increasingly points to WIPP, despite vulnerabilities exposed by an underground truck fire at the plant in 2014 and an unrelated radiation leak that followed days later, shutting down the plant for the past two years. Officials say it might reopen by the year’s end.

In late March, the National Nuclear Security Administration announced that more than 6 tons of plutonium would be diluted with a blend of chemical compounds called oxides — a process known as down-blending — at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and would then be shipped to New Mexico. A portion of that plutonium — just under 1 metric ton, or 2,000 pounds — from “foreign sources” could be included in the shipment, the agency said.

The Department of Energy then announced a $6 billion contract spanning a 10-year period for the Savannah River Site to prepare and package the waste. And on April 1, President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced that “critical” highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium had been removed from the Fast Critical Assembly nuclear reactor research facility in Japan and shipped to the U.S.

Despite objections from the state of South Carolina, the plutonium from Japan was sent to the Savannah River Site. NNSA spokeswoman Francie Israeli confirmed to The New Mexican last week that the plutonium ultimately will be placed at WIPP.

WIPP originally was intended to be the nation’s first deep-underground nuclear repository — not the only such facility in the U.S. or in the world. A high-level waste storage site planned for Yucca Mountain in Nevada was abandoned in 2011 following extensive public and political outcry in the state. No other sites have been designated as nuclear repositories since.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration set a goal in 2009 “to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials” worldwide by 2013, and while that deadline has gone unmet, the president has remained a strong proponent of a “global zero” campaign to eliminate the spread of nuclear weapons. Part of this mission rests on an agreement to secure or dispose of all vulnerable nuclear materials.

Critics say storing plutonium from Japan at WIPP would directly violate the laws that govern the underground repository and could fundamentally reshape the facility’s mission — which stipulated storing only transuranic waste from U.S. defense projects. Others say that because the plutonium will be heavily diluted, it will meet WIPP’s criteria.

Since WIPP opened its doors, the original scope of its mission has slowly shifted. Exceptions have been made to allow more than 3 tons of plutonium from the Savannah River Site and the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado to be secured in the salt caverns below Carlsbad — including classified molds that shaped plutonium pits used to trigger nuclear bombs.

The plant’s mission also included a pledge to “open clean and stay clean,” but a runaway reaction from an improperly packaged waste drum from Los Alamos in 2014 caused a radiation leak that escaped the cavern, contaminating the air above ground and breaking that promise.

Meanwhile, the plant is still pegged to take waste waiting at national laboratories, as well as new waste the labs create. The U.S. Department of Energy’s budget for the coming year proposes funding to enhance the nation’s nuclear stockpile and ramp up plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory — work certain to contribute to the waste stream.

Todd Shrader, Carlsbad Field Office manager for the Department of Energy, addressed the plan to bring plutonium to New Mexico during a WIPP public forum Thursday night.

“As with all waste that comes here, it has to meet our waste acceptance criteria and the hazardous waste permit,” he said. “In our mind, it is frankly the same.”………

He also said that plutonium disposal through a nuclear reactor fuel program or storage at WIPP has not been thoroughly studied to show which path — if either of them — is the clear route forward in getting rid of such sensitive materials.

“I worry that we might be trying to jump off of one horse before we are sure that the other horse will be better and faster,” he said.

He [William Tobey, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the former deputy administrator of the Office of Defense Nuclear Proliferation at the NNSA.] said spending money to solve the problem is necessary.

“The people who fought World War II bore significant burdens, but they realized they had a responsibility to do that,” Tobey said. “My argument is we also have a responsibility to bear some burden for the disposition of plutonium” that resulted from the weapons program at that time. “There is a symmetry,” he said………….. Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.  http://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/changing-nuclear-landscape-alters-wipp-s-role/article_2a57716d-4e92-5e94-bc3a-d2a6ce1ae26c.html

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