WIPP Central Characterization Project Is Lynchpin For Characterization Of Radioactive Waste Received From LANL, Other DOE Sites


The Central Characterization Project for transuranic radioactive waste leaving Department of Energy sites, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, is the lynchpin for characterization of waste bound for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, DOE’s field office manager Reinhard Knerr told the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board last week. WIPP is the nation’s only repository for the disposal of transuranic waste which consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements.

Knerr, who has been at WIPP since July 2020, noted that the facility has been operating since 1999, supporting some 22 DOE facilities across the nuclear complex. WIPP has received 12,842 shipments as of February 3, including 180 in FY2020, 46 of which were from LANL. Between Feb. 1, 2021 and the end of January 2022, Knerr anticipates 80 shipments from LANL, with 165 from Idaho National Laboratory, 18 from the Savannah River Site, 4 from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and up to 25 from Waste Control Specialists in Texas.

“Our big shipper will continue to be Idaho as we’re supporting some of the activities up there but we also are supporting Oak Ridge and Savannah River. We do have a couple more Livermore shipments. This last year was the first year we have shipped from Livermore in quite some time so we were very excited about that and we may be able to receive up to 25 shipments from WCS if we’re successful in supporting (DOE Los Alamos Environmental Management Field Office Manager) Kirk Lachman and his team,” Knerr said.

He discussed the importance of the Central Characterization Project (CCP) which was established by DOE to standardize and provide efficiencies in the characterization and certification process at DOE waste generator sites such as LANL.

“The area I most worry about is the interface between the generator site and our program. We rely on Environmental Management at Los Alamos and their contractors to give us information. Sometimes they don’t have the information because it’s legacy waste and it really becomes a research project on both sides of the fence to make sure we understand what we’re taking,” he said. “Newly generated waste should be easier but sometimes the downside for newly generated waste is that people will make operational errors whenever you deal with it. There’s always room for mistakes so those are the types of things I’m a little more nervous about to tell you the truth because the legacy waste – it is what it is.”

Knerr said the legacy waste has been sitting for decades so “you feel pretty comfortable and if you don’t know what it is, you go ahead and you sample”. He said the CCP program is probably one of the most regulated programs anywhere in the world and that the people involved take a lot of pride in what they do especially when they are doing Acceptable Knowledge” research and chemical compatibility analyses to make sure they have multiple layers of control.

“I think we have learned a lesson that an error along that front has a lot of potential ramifications for us in the underground with regard to the operability of the repository. That program is a lynchpin of our characterization process but again we are dependent on the generator site,” Knerr said.

2020 was a short year for WIPP, Knerr said, but despite some COVID-related impacts, the facility received 180 shipments, including 46 from LANL. Between October 1, 2020 and early February some 70 shipments have been received.  

Knerr noted that about a dozen infrastructure projects are going on at WIPP in various stages of progress. He said FY21 is a big year for WIPP with between $25-$45 million of work anticipated including electrical substation replacement, upgrades to fire suppression systems and replacing the firewater tanks to double capacity.

“We’re also in process of refurbishing our salt hoist which is where we take salt that’s been mined in the underground and haul it to the surface. We also have other activities that are a little simpler like gutting and rebuilding a shower room for our work force, which may not seem very glorious or a critical activity, but certainly we want to see that our workforce is taken care of and their facility is what we would expect as we prepare for the long-term,” he said.

WIPP is currently undergoing a maintenance outage which means waste shipments are not being received.

“We have roughly 97 activities scheduled for this outage and this is a particularly long one. Typically those outages range three to six weeks and this is scheduled for eight weeks so there’s some significant actions in the underground that we’re doing – replacing some of the waste station steel structure in the floor leveling or changing some of the HEPA filter banks – those are all activities that we need to make sure that we’re ready for the next year. We’re also working in the waste handling building – pulling one of the bulkheads down and getting ready to relocate it,” Knerr said.

He said the facility is on track ort a little ahead of schedule on all the maintenance actions.

“I’m not anticipating any particular issues on completing that outage on April 14, so we’re currently looking to resume shipments near the end of March and that would allow us then to have shipments, off-loaded from the tru-packs and then downloaded into the underground as soon as we come out of that outage,” Knerr said.

In addition to the infrastructure upgrades and maintenance activities, Knerr said noted that a couple of high-visibility, high-value capital asset projects are underway. One is a two-stage air filtration system that is expected to more than double the amount of air underground. When it’s online and fully-operational Knerr said the air volume will increase from 140,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm) to upwards of 540,000 cfm.

“Air is critically important to us in the underground. It drives how much work we can do. Right now we are not able to do mining and waste emplacement at the same time, so this will give us some increased capabilities and allow us to position ourselves to support the long-term missions at the sites. This project is a little bit behind schedule. We don’t anticipate it coming online until calendar year 2024-25 but we’re making some progress. We have underground utilities installed and the fabrication facilities complete,” he said.

The Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS) project and the utility shaft project are going to give us the airflow we need long-term for WIPP. Knerr said WIPP is in position now to bring on one of its legacy fans that will allow them to increase the airflow in the underground for up to 240 cubic feet per minute during mining and ground control activities which allows them to accelerate.

“That’s going to be critically important for us and we are moving on that particular effort,” he said.

The fan was one of the original fans working at the site provided ventilation underground before that system went into HEPA ventilation mode in 2014. Knerr said quite a bit of analysis has been done and a  four-hour test has been run on the fan to gather some radiological data.

“We’re getting close to being able to have a town hall meeting to discuss the results of that test. The fan is going to give us that increased airflow in the underground. I don’t think it’s any secret that we’ve struggled with air quality issues, which of course has incentivized us to move towards an all-electric fleet in the underground. We’ve made some pretty good efforts on that front, and we’ve actually incentivized our contractor to make several significant procurements this year so that we have the equipment arriving next year that can also be put into service which will also help with the air quality in the underground. This is a good accomplishment for us,” he said.

Shaft No. 5, the Utility Shaft, will be added to the underground to provide an additional source of air.

“Currently in order to maximize the air flow in conjunction with the SSCVS project, we need an additional shaft. Currently this project is on hold. We were in the process of siting that shaft. We actually were able to drill down to about 116 feet before the initial temporary authorization from NMED expired and we were not successful in getting an extension for that so we are waiting for the permitting process to move forward,” Knerr said.

The public hearing for the Class 3 permit modification is May 17 so Knerr said he is looking forward to the hearing and a decision from NMED, which would allow WIPP if successful in getting approval, to go ahead and finish sinking that shaft.

“We are just over 2,000 feet down so it’s going to take quite a while to do our shaft sinking but we’ve brought in some of the best companies when it comes to putting a shaft in the ground in the nation. We look forward to resuming activities on that project,” Knerr said.

Knerr noted that from a priority perspective, protecting the WIPP workforce and then the mine are first and foremost.

“We focus on routine safety activities whether that is having the Mine Safety & Health Administration at the site looking for compliance with mining regulations or whether it’s our facility reps doing walk-downs making sure there’s compliance with DOE orders or requirements, or our quality assurance folks making sure that we’re adhering to permit requirements,” he said. “All of that oversight is to make sure we’re protecting our workforce as well as the public and the environment. Of course we are making sure that we have the necessary ground control activities to protect the mine. We have been very aggressive in the amount of bolting that we do – that’s where we sink bolts into the back or the steeling of the mine to make sure that we’re controlling any ground movement – and we’ve increased the safety factors for the bulk of the mine to the range we’re very comfortable with. That’s good news.”

Asked how long he expects it will take to get shipments back to the pre-2014 level, Knerr said his team has been putting together a plan for the last six months that would allow WIPP to accept up to 17 shipments a week again by mid-year calendar 2023.

“We are planning on utilizing some carryover funds to bring on an additional backshift so that would get us back to pre-2014 full operations. Full operations in the past ranged from 15 to 20 shipments per week. That 17 shipments per week is right in that sweet spot so we’re looking forward to being able to do that,” he said,