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Filling the WIPP Pipeline with Actinides

In May 1999, I was appointed manager of the Department of Energy (DOE) Carlsbad Field Office, which is responsible for the DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and the National Transuranic Waste Management Program. WIPP is a deep geologic repository located near Carlsbad, N.M., for the disposal of defense-generated transuranic (TRU) waste. The National Transuranic Waste Management Program coordinates the characterization of this waste at DOE sites across the country and the transportation of the waste to WIPP for disposal.

Upon arriving in Carlsbad, I immediately realized the need to accelerate TRU waste shipments to WIPP. At the time, WIPP was receiving one to two shipments of TRU waste per week. At that rate, it would take the facility 255 years to complete its mission! Clearly, something had to be done, so I challenged WIPP employees and organizations to "fill the pipeline" to achieve and sustain 17 shipments per week.

I am proud to say that three years later, WIPP is receiving 17 shipments per week and is now ramping up to receive 25 per week. Let me tell you how our team achieved this goal.

Filling the pipeline required a culture change as much as anything else. For years, WIPP focused on preparing the facility for opening. This meant passing literally hundreds of audits by regulators, oversight groups, and internal review teams. After the facility finally opened for TRU waste disposal operations on March 26, 1999, most WIPP employees and organizations continued to focus their attention "inside the fence"-to improving the WIPP waste handling process and facility operations.

Our challenge was to get these employees and organizations to shift some of their focus to "outside the fence"-improving TRU waste characterization and transportation. Changing a culture can take years, but we did not have that kind of time. So, we launched a full-scale communication blitz to effect a change in their focus.

But, communication is not enough to effect a culture change-you must hold organizations and employees accountable. WIPP became one of the first DOE facilities to use a new method of contractor accountability: the performance-based incentive. Through a number of performance-based incentives, we made sure that the contractor had incentives to accelerate waste shipments to WIPP. Not only was the contractor held accountable, my own DOE employees were as well.

A truck carries three Transuranic Package Transporter Model II—or TRUPACT-II—containers to the WIPP site. The stainless steel containers are approximately eight feet in diameter, ten feet high, and can hold up to fourteen fifty-five-gallon waste drums.

In addition to changing the culture at WIPP, many technical initiatives were also necessary to aid in filling the pipeline. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory had previously designed and produced a TRU waste mobile loading unit, and we accelerated its deployment and use at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The mobile loading unit contains a suite of equipment capable of loading 55-gallon TRU waste containers into TRUPACT-IIs (the shipping casks we use for transport to WIPP).

The Central Characterization Project is another accomplishment of the past year. This project is a mobile waste characterization system consisting of four parts. Nondestructive assay instrumentation is used to characterize the radiological content of each drum, while nondestructive evaluation equipment (real-time-radiography) is used to examine the physical contents of each drum.

The characterization system also includes a visual examination capability (in a glove box) for confirming a statistical subset of the real-time radiography examinations, and headspace gas sampling and analysis equipment to draw and composite air in the headspace of each container for analysis for a broad spectrum of volatile organic compounds. The mobile/modular units currently do not have the capability to core and analyze homogeneous solids, such as cemented drums. The mobile waste characterization system is accompanied by a mobile loading unit. These units give sites the ability to characterize and stage transuranic waste destined for shipment to WIPP in accordance with all necessary requirements and to meet WIPP’s disposal requirements. Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency and the New Mexico Environment Department have approved the project for use on a specific waste stream located at the Savannah River Site.

Members of the WIPP Central Characterization Project mobile loading crew deploy the mobile loading unit at the Savannah River Site. This was the first shipment of transuranic (TRU) waste certified, characterized, loaded into TRUPACT-II containers, and shipped for disposal at WIPP under the Central Characterization Project. The shipment arrived at WIPP on the evening of April 6, 2002.

To date, these efforts have resulted in several critical accomplishments during the past three years. WIPP has ramped up from receiving one to two waste shipments per week to 17 shipments per week, for a total of just over 700 shipments received. The site also has surpassed one million employee-hours without a lost-time accident and has achieved more than one and a half million safe transportation shipment-miles.

To put this in perspective, in our first three years of operation we have safely emplaced almost ten percent (1,250 kilograms) of the weapons-grade plutonium in the baseline inventory projected for disposal. Interestingly, we have received almost the same number of curies of americium-241, since we accepted shipments early on of some of the reprocessing sludge from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. The more than 67 kilocuries of americium-241 in WIPP today are roughly equivalent to that in a common smoke detector for each person on the planet.

Waste handlers perform a swipe test to check for radioactive contaminants before unloading 55-gallon drums from a TRUPACT-II container.

Another surprising fact deals with the amount of hazardous volatile organic compounds that has been shipped to WIPP in the first three years of operation. With all the emphasis on organic hazardous materials in TRU waste destined for WIPP, the total amount of volatile organic compounds that WIPP is required to track as stipulated in our Resource Conservation and Recovery Act permit with the State of New Mexico is less than 28 liters of gas. No, that’s not a typo. There are nine specific "contaminants of concern" in the volatile organic compound monitoring requirements of the WIPP permit. If all of the approximately 18,000 drums of TRU waste in WIPP today had been treated to extract these volatile organic compounds from the headspace gas, they would result in a total of 28 liters at standard temperature and pressure.

Recently, a new proposal has been made to construct an Actinide Chemistry and Repository Science Laboratory (ACRSL) adjacent to the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC), which is a part of New Mexico State University. In conjunction with DOE's Office of Science and Technology (EM-50) and Los Alamos, we transferred the Contaminant Analysis Automation trailer from Los Alamos to CEMRC last year. The Contaminant Analysis Automation technology will become a significant part of the ACRSL, which will be operated by CEMRC.

The Los Alamos Carlsbad Office will perform radiochemistry experiments needed to address issues related to nuclear waste characterization and repository performance in these new facilities. Sandia National Laboratories will also conduct actinide chemistry experiments here. These studies will help address specific scientific and technical issues related to waste characterization, repository performance, and enhanced operations of the repository.

Miners use a Marietta drum miner to cut passages and rooms in the ancient, stable salt deposits. The equipment can mine up to 875 tons per shift.

Several experiments are planned. Researchers will study the effects of WIPP-relevant materials—such as reductants—and potential radiolysis byproducts—for example, hypochlorite and peroxide—on the oxidation states and speciation of plutonium, americium, uranium, thorium, and neptunium. They also hope to study the effects of organic ligands on the mobility of plutonium and other actinide elements in WIPP-relevant brines, the demobilization of actinides by borehole fill materials, and the efficacy of oxidation state analogs for predicting the behavior of the actinides.

Space is too limited here to describe all the other initiatives the WIPP project is pursuing to fill the disposal pipeline with waste actinides. We are exploring many streamlined ways of characterization, and there are numerous transportation enhancement opportunities, including a rail option. We plan a subsequent contribution to "Actinide Research Quarterly" next year with an update on how the WIPP project is solving the nation’s TRU waste disposal problem.

It has been a challenging three years. By accelerating waste shipments to WIPP, we are making a positive contribution to our national safety and security, as well as paving the path forward for the nuclear industry. This article was contributed by Inés Triay, manager of the Carlsbad Field Office. Photos courtesy of the DOE Carlsbad Field Office.


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