CARLSBAD, N.M. – The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) joins EM in celebrating an anniversary in 2019. Twenty years ago, the first waste shipment entered WIPP’s gates to the cheers and applause of hundreds who had gathered to celebrate the long-awaited occasion.
The nation’s only operating deep geologic repository for nuclear waste, WIPP plays a critical role in the EM cleanup program’s mission to address the nation’s Cold War environmental legacy.
Since its opening on March 26, 1999, WIPP has accepted more than 12,500 shipments of defense-generated transuranic (TRU) waste, removing all legacy TRU waste from more than 20 sites around the DOE complex for emplacement in an ancient salt formation 2,150 feet underground.
TRU waste began accumulating in the 1940s with the beginning of the nation’s nuclear defense program. It is comprised of debris, residues, soil, and other items contaminated with radioactive elements that have atomic numbers greater than uranium.
As early as the 1950s, the National Academy of Sciences recommended salt deposits for the permanent disposal of radioactive waste, as salt would slowly encapsulate the waste, isolating it from the environment.
Throughout the 1960s, government scientists searched for an appropriate site for a repository, eventually testing a remote desert area of southeastern New Mexico where, 250 million years earlier, evaporation cycles of the ancient Permian Sea had left a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed.
In this salt bed, large disposal panels are mined out, with each panel consisting of seven rooms. TRU waste barrels and boxes are stacked in rows on the floor of the disposal rooms.
Waste is currently being emplaced in Panel 7, while Panel 8 is being mined. Panels are not mined until right before they are needed for waste emplacement, as the natural movement of salt begins to close the mined opening within a relatively short period of time.
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