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February 1, 2010 - 12:00pm


Carlsbad, NM - Transuranic (TRU) waste cleanup efforts are underway across the DOE complex, as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) wraps up its 11th year of disposal operations.

The Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO) manages the DOE's National TRU Program (NTP) Office and WIPP facility operations. TRU waste temporarily stored at DOE generator sites around the country is shipped to WIPP and disposed in rooms mined out of an ancient salt formation 2,150 feet below the surface. WIPP, which began waste disposal operations in 1999, is located 26 miles outside of Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Over the last year, CBFO has successfully completed two major remote-handled (RH) TRU waste shipping campaigns and continues efforts to increase waste characterization efficiencies. Since the 1st receipt of RH TRU waste in 2007, CBFO has certified the startup of the Central Characterization Project (CCP) and RH shipments at 6 different DOE sites. CBFO is also in the process of completing both a permit renewal with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and a recertification application with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as working with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on several potential modifications that could improve the efficiency of shipments to the WIPP facility.

With the availability of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding to supplement base funding, CBFO has accelerated the cleanup of legacy TRU waste across the complex. This investment of additional funding will continue to provide DOE the ability to expedite the cleanup of TRU waste even after 2011. With TRU waste programs across the complex integrated with NTP and with wide-utilization of CCP, CBFO is able to assist in the accelerated cleanup of TRU waste sites by providing a focused, systematic approach to radioactive waste disposition.


Earlier this year, crews at the WIPP facility completed disposal of RH TRU waste from California's Vallecitos Nuclear Center (VNC) in Sunol, California. In all, 32 canisters of RH TRU waste from VNC were disposed. Legacy TRU waste cleanup at VNC is expected to wrap up in May, with a single contact-handled (CH) TRU waste shipment to Idaho. The TRU waste sent to WIPP was generated from research performed by General Electric for DOE in the 1960s through the 1980s. In 2007, DOE agreed to clean up a hot cell containing defense-related TRU waste. Since April 2009, the VNC characterization and removal process was funded through ARRA.

Last summer, the CBFO completed a RH shipping campaign from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). A total of 16 canisters of RH TRU waste were shipped from LANL to the WIPP facility. LANL and VNC were the fifth and sixth sites, respectively, to ship RH to WIPP.

Additionally, CBFO has continued to enhance waste characterization efficiencies around the DOE complex. This has been done by consolidating nearly all waste characterization and transportation responsibilities into a single organization, CCP. The CCP is currently providing characterization assistance at LANL, Idaho National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Savannah River Site, Hanford, VNC, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, and NRD, LLC.

The CBFO is also in the process of consolidating defense TRU waste at INL for characterization and, when needed, treatment prior to shipment to WIPP. Most of the sites that will ship waste to INL have small quantities of TRU waste and do not have the infrastructure or certified programs needed to meet WIPP disposal standards. Consolidating TRU waste in Idaho also allows DOE to take advantage of the facility's Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project and compaction operations. This consolidation process greatly assisted with recent waste cleanup efforts at the Nevada Test Site.


WIPP's Hazardous Waste Facility Permit (Permit) renewal process is underway. CBFO and the NMED met on February 26 to discuss the NMED's intentions with Permit renewal. The NMED explained the new format for the Permit and discussed content changes they intend to make. They also shared requests made by stakeholders with regard to the Permit. Next, CBFO will evaluate all of the information received and provide the NMED with feedback regarding the proposals. The WIPP facility Permit must be renewed every 10 years.

The EPA is currently in the process of reviewing a DOE recertification application for the WIPP disposal system. Every five years, DOE must have the EPA recertify that the WIPP disposal system continues to meet applicable federal TRU waste disposal standards. The CBFO is currently responding to several minor items addressed by the EPA in early 2010. Once that response is complete, CBFO expects a completeness decision to be reached by the EPA in the spring.

Also underway, CBFO is moving forward with innovations that could improve the efficiency of shipments to WIPP.

A new TRU waste shipping container may eventually be in use for WIPP shipments. In January, a safety analysis report was submitted to the NRC seeking approval for a new Type B transportation container known as the Transuranic Package Transporter Model III (TRUPACT-III). The TRUPACT-III was tested extensively in the fall. Some of the current TRU waste inventory is currently held in large boxes. The TRUPACT-III, if approved, could be used for shipping a portion of that waste without having to repackage it to fit into existing shipping packages. This development would make the waste preparation process both safer and more efficient.

A revision of the RH-72B Safety Analysis Report was also recently submitted to the NRC. The revision addresses the potential use of neutron-shielded containers for RH shipments to WIPP. Some RH waste contains neutron-emitting isotopes, which contribute to dose rate. High neutron-emitting waste would be packaged in RH canisters with polyethylene sleeves and shipped in the RH-72B, which is currently used for RH shipments to WIPP.

With testing and evaluation complete, WIPP is also currently in the process of obtaining regulatory approval to use lead-shielded containers for selected gamma-emitting RH TRU waste with lower dose rates . These shielded containers would be placed onto the floor of the underground repository and would enable DOE to significantly increase the efficiency of transportation and disposal operations. The shielded container design has passed drop testing for Department of Transportation specifications and NRC specifications for shipping in the HalfPACT transportation package. The HalfPACT is currently in use for CH TRU waste shipments.


Since its opening, WIPP has received a total of 8,300 shipments, including 22,074 CH shipping packages and 331 RH shipping packages. TRU waste cleanup has been completed at 15 DOE waste generator sites, most significantly Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site and most recently the Nevada Test Site.

Perhaps the most significant WIPP milestone of 2010 is expected to take place in April, when the project will cross the 10-million-loaded-mile mark. That also will mean that WIPP's drivers will have gone more than 20 million miles without a serious injury since the facility opened in 1999.