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WIPP: Three Years in Operation, Decades in Development

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the world’s first permanent underground repository for transuranic (TRU) waste, is located in a remote desert area in southeastern New Mexico. Above: This schematic shows the aboveground facilities and the surrounding countryside, as well as the repository areas (the gray rectangles) excavated almost one-half mile underground. Above right: Drums of waste fill an underground disposal room. Right: These cutaways show the contents of drums of TRU waste. Most of the waste that is coming to WIPP consists of rags, clothing, tools, debris, and other disposable items contaminated with radioactive elements, mostly plutonium. Far right: More than seven miles of tunnels make up the WIPP underground.

Three years ago the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southeastern New Mexico accepted its first shipment of low-level transuranic waste. Since then, almost 18,000 drums of waste have been delivered to the site, and a milestone was reached in January when the site accepted its 500th shipment. During the next 35 years, about 37,000 shipments are expected to be delivered to the site.

WIPP is the nation's first permanent, deep geological disposal facility for low-level waste generated by the nuclear weapons program. Regulations do not allow WIPP to accept commercial or high-level radioactive waste. President George W. Bush has endorsed a high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Congress is expected to take up that debate later this year.

WIPP required years of scientific research, regulatory struggles, and input from the public before it began operations in March 1999. The idea for a WIPP dates back to the 1950s, when the National Academy of Sciences launched a search for a geological formation stable enough to contain wastes for thousands of years. In 1955, after extensive study, salt deposits were recommended as a promising medium for the disposal of radioactive waste.

Salt is a good candidate for nuclear waste disposal for several reasons. Most salt deposits are found in stable geological areas where there is very little earthquake activity. Salt deposits are found in areas where there is no flowing fresh water—if water were present, it would have dissolved the salt beds. Salt also is relatively easy to mine. And, because rock salt heals its own fractures, the salt formations will slowly move in to fill mined areas and seal the waste from the environment. The salt rock also provides shielding from radioactivity similar to that of concrete.

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the forerunner to the Department of Energy (DOE), originally selected a salt mine near Lyons, Kansas, for WIPP, but it turned out to be unacceptable. Several years later, a site near Carlsbad, N.M., was chosen. Congress authorized WIPP in 1979, and the DOE constructed the facility during the 1980s.

The salt formations at WIPP were formed about 225 million years ago during the evaporation of an ancient ocean. These geologic formations at WIPP are about 2,000 feet thick, beginning 850 feet below the surface.

Waste destined for WIPP consists mainly of equipment, clothing, and other debris that has been contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other transuranics. The waste, which has been accumulating since the Manhattan Project, is currently stored at almost two dozen sites around the United States. Ninety-seven percent of the waste comes from just five sites: Los Alamos, Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site in Colorado, Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, Hanford Site in Washington, and Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Federal and State regulations require that waste be characterized before it is shipped to WIPP. Characterization requires knowing the physical, chemical, and radiological properties of the waste to make sure it contains only materials allowed to be shipped to and accepted by WIPP. Once received at WIPP, and before they are buried, the wastes must be confirmed to contain only those materials allowed to be disposed at the site.

Safely disposing and storing the accumulated waste from almost 60 years of nuclear research is a daunting task. WIPP is a critical part of the DOE’s effort to clean up this legacy waste and protect the public and the environment. In the articles that follow, we take a look at several issues of nuclear waste, including technologies Los Alamos is using to safely store and track waste, how Los Alamos researchers are assisting the cleanup effort at Rocky Flats, and a guest editorial on WIPP's first three years of operation.abruptly.

Information and photos for this article were provided by the DOE Carlsbad Field Office.


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