A group of workers in white hard hats pose for a group picture in WIPP's underground disposal facility

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant team members commemorate the first “cut” into Panel 11, the underground’s future waste disposal panel. Pictured from left: Ryan Flynn, Salado Isolation Mining Contractors (SIMCO) vice president and environment, safety and health manager; Mike Marksberry, SIMCO vice president and mining and underground operations manager; Craig Heine; Scott Reiner; Randy Wilson; Ken Harrawood, SIMCO president and program manager; Mark Bollinger, EM Carlsbad Field Office manager; Juan Cruz; Joseph Garrett; and Orlando Franco.

Renewed state operating permit enables crews to start work

CARLSBAD, N.M. — Just before the new year, there was quite the ribbon-cutting at EM’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

At the event, the spinning teeth of a multi-ton mechanical mining machine clawed through the ceremonial ribbon and began cutting a new disposal panel out of a 250-million-year-old layer of salt beneath the New Mexico desert.

It’s the first time in a decade that crews have started mining a new disposal panel at the nation’s only deep geologic waste repository for defense-related transuranic waste.

“The successful start to mining Panel 11 was a great demonstration of how open dialogue and communication with our regulators and stakeholders, along with the support of the field office team, can help mission success,” said Michael Gerle, environmental regulatory compliance director for EM’s Carlsbad Field Office, which oversees WIPP.

The new Panel 11 is the first of two waste emplacement panels approved last year by the New Mexico Environment Department as part of a 10-year extension of WIPP’s operating permit. The new panel does not represent an increase in the scope for WIPP; the waste to be emplaced in Panel 11 is within original congressional volume limits established for the waste repository.

The creation of new panels allows safe and compliant emplacement of waste to continue from generator sites throughout the United States, supporting DOE’s environmental cleanup and national security missions.

"We are excited to begin mining WIPP’s newest panel,” said Mike Marksberry, a vice president and mining and underground operations manager with Salado Isolation Mining Contractors, EM’s management and operations contractor for WIPP. “Mining a disposal panel is a huge team effort involving our engineers, geologists, environmental staff, skilled mining crews and many support organizations.”

A large, orange, miner machine cutting into underground salt rock

Approximately 2,150 feet underground, a mammoth-sized continuous miner machine cuts into salt rock, the beginning phase of what will become Panel 11, one of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s next waste disposal panels.

The process of mining a panel

Located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, WIPP permanently isolates defense-generated transuranic waste 2,150 feet underground in panels mined out of an ancient salt formation. The facility has been disposing of transuranic waste since 1999.

Approximately 120,000 tons of salt rock is mined to create a panel, which consists of seven rooms. Each room measures 300 feet long by 33 feet wide by 14 feet high. It takes about two years to cut and outfit a panel.

Workers are currently emplacing waste into WIPP Panel 8. Panel 8’s first room, Room 7, has been filled and emplacement activities have moved to Room 6.

Panel 11 is connected to the rest of the WIPP facility by new pathways that stretch nearly half a mile from the existing mine to the west, connecting not only the new panels but a new air intake shaft key to increased ventilation in the WIPP underground.

Mining crews use a mammoth-sized, highly efficient continuous miner that cuts into the salt rock with a rotating drum, which can be elevated. Standing behind this cutting head, an operator remotely controls the machine, which has the capacity to generate 10 tons of salt per minute. Gathering arms move the salt onto a belt that carries it to a truck for use elsewhere in the underground or to a hoist that carries the salt from 2,150 feet underground to a salt tailings pile on the surface.

Mining at WIPP is timed so that a panel is only ready when it is needed for waste emplacement. This is because the natural movement of salt causes mined openings to close. In fact, panels are mined slightly larger than the desired size to account for this closure. This is the salt rock behavior that will eventually permanently encapsulate the waste.

-Contributor: Roy Neese