Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

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Operators prepare drums of contact-handled transuranic waste for loading into transportation containers

Operators prepare drums of contact-handled transuranic waste for loading into transportation containers

A transuranic waste shipment travels on an approved shipping route to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

A transuranic waste shipment travels on an approved shipping route to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Transuranic, or TRU, waste began accumulating in the 1940s with the beginning of the nation's nuclear defense program. As early as the 1950s, the National Academy of Sciences recommended deep disposal of long-lived TRU radioactive wastes in geologically stable formations, such as deep salt beds. Sound environmental practices and strict regulations require such wastes to be isolated to protect human health and the environment.

Bedded salt is free of fresh flowing water, easily mined, impermeable and geologically stable – an ideal medium for permanently isolating long-lived radioactive wastes from the environment. However, its most important quality in this application is the way salt rock seals all fractures and naturally closes all openings.

Throughout the 1960s, government scientists searched for an appropriate site for radioactive waste disposal, eventually testing a remote desert area of southeastern New Mexico where, 250 million years earlier, evaporation cycles of the ancient Permian Sea had created a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed.

In 1979, Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). The WIPP facility, located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, N.M., was constructed during the 1980s. Congress limited WIPP to the disposal of defense-generated TRU wastes. In 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certified WIPP for safe, long-term disposal of TRU wastes.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is located in the Chihuahauan Desert of southeastern New Mexico, approximately 26 miles east of Carlsbad, NM. WIPP occupies approximately 28 square kilometers (16 square miles). The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s history is relatively short, as it became operational in 1999. The facility is used to store transuranic (TRU) waste left over from nuclear weapons research and testing operations from our past defense activities. Project facilities include disposal rooms mined 2,150 feet underground in a 2,000 square foot thick salt formation.

Generally, TRU waste consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with radioactive elements, mostly plutonium. These man-made elements have atomic numbers greater than uranium, thus trans-uranic, or beyond uranium on the Periodic table of Elements. There are two categories of TRU waste. Contact-handled (CH) TRU waste can be safely handled by workers under controlled conditions without any shielding other than the containers itself. CH TRU waste will make-up approximately 96 percent of the total volume of waste to be disposed at WIPP. The remaining four percent will be remote-handled TRU waste, which emits more penetrating radiation than CH TRU waste and must be handled and transported in lead-shielded casks.

Prime regulators at WIPP are the EPA and the New Mexico Environment Department. A number of other agencies, committees and panels monitor WIPP's progress and contribute to project success.

The DOE Carlsbad Field Office, which leads the nations TRU waste disposal effort, has coordinated TRU waste cleanup at a number of generator sites around the country. Since 1999, WIPP has set the standard for safe, permanent disposal of long-lived radioactive defense wastes.

Recovery Act Projects at Carlsbad focus the supplemental appropriations for job preservation and creation to accelerate the disposition of defense-generated TRU waste across the nation. Specifically the project entitled “TRU Waste Accelerated Disposition” involves the accelerated TRU waste characterization, certification and transportation for disposition of defense-generated TRU waste from the targeted generator and interim storage sites above and beyond the currently-approved baseline project using Recovery Act funds.

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Site Cleanup By the Numbers