Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Takes On 97 Projects In Two-Month Maintenance Outage

Waste handlers take radiological readings as a crane lifts containers from a TRUPACT-II cask in the contact-handled waste bay at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. The Department of Energy facility has resumed accepting shipments and processing waste after a two-month annual maintenance outage. Photo Courtesy DOE-EM


The Department of Energy Environmental Management ( EM)’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is once again accepting shipments and processing transuranic waste following a successful annual maintenance outage that keeps the facility’s vital national mission going.

The two-month maintenance break at the nation’s only deep geologic repository for nuclear waste spanned Feb. 15 to April 15, with 97 work activities using personnel from six departments, including mine operations, waste handling, hoisting, work control, safety, and engineering. The break included site-wide power outages to accommodate electrical work.

“WIPP plays a vital role in the Department of Energy’s cleanup mission, so we are happy to be back online and accepting waste from generator sites,” said Reinhard Knerr, manager of the EM Carlsbad Field Office.

Knerr noted that WIPP’s mission is to safely transport and dispose of defense related transuranic waste from federal facilities across the country.

“As those sites continue to make substantial progress in their cleanup missions, WIPP looks forward to continuing to safely accept these shipments and properly dispose of the waste,” Knerr said.


Workers in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant underground stand up a metal bulkhead used to control airflow through one of four air circuits in the facility’s underground, 2,150 feet beneath the surface. Bulkheads are assembled in an underground fabrication shop from material transported from the surface. Foam is used to close gaps between the bulkhead and the walls. Photo Courtesy DOE-EM

Outage projects included inspections, maintenance, and repairs to systems in waste-handling buildings, including four processing docks and four overhead cranes in the contact-handled waste bay. This allowed waste handlers to process eight TRUPACT-II waste casks April 5, the equivalent of 112 55-gallon drums of waste. The waste is emplaced in WIPP’s underground repository, 2,150 feet beneath the surface.

WIPP is back to accepting five waste shipments per week, with post-pandemic plans to increase shipments to 10 per week.

“The amount of equipment repairs performed during the outage resulted in a huge improvement for waste handling,” said WIPP waste handling manager Mars Dukes. “To have all of our equipment operating properly allows us to safely meet the demands of the accelerated shipping schedule and positions our team for success.”

Through the end of March, WIPP has accepted 12,845 shipments of waste from DOE generator sites throughout the country, and WIPP drivers have safely driven 15.3 million loaded miles.

Preventive maintenance at WIPP is done on a schedule that can range from daily to annually. Quarterly efforts generally take about a week to tackle. Once a year, a multi-week outage is scheduled to handle projects needing the greatest effort that cannot be performed while normal transuranic waste operations are ongoing.

In the largest project in this year’s outage, crews removed 170 feet of railroad-like rails used to transfer waste pallets at the bottom of the waste hoist. The project addressed a problem where movement of salt rock had heaved the floor so the rails were no longer level. The rails and metal plates were removed, a mining machine dug five feet down into the salt floor, and the floor was leveled. Gravel ballast and run-of-mine salt were added as a base layer, and the rails and metal plates were reinstalled.


Railroad-style rails that carry transuranic waste upon arrival in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant underground underwent renovation during the site’s maintenance outage this year. Mining machines excavated a deep trench that was refilled with salt and gravel for ballast underneath steel plates and the rails, which can be viewed on either side of the trench in this photo. Photo Courtesy DOE-EM

A metal bulkhead that controls airflow into the waste station area was removed, the salt floor leveled, and a new bulkhead installed.

Crews also tackled a two-week project, replacing a battery exhaust fan in the site’s waste-handling building.

Workers completed floor coatings in the contact-handled bay and conveyance loading room; filter changeouts on multiple ventilation fans; mechanical inspections on the supplemental ventilation system fan; mechanical and electrical inspections of three fans known as the 860-series fans and two known as the 960-series fans; inspections of nine bulkheads in the WIPP underground used to direct airflow; and installation of foam-filled tires on underground forklifts, eliminating downtime due to flat tires.

The computer system and associated electronics that control the TRUPACT-III transporters, known as automated guided vehicles, were upgraded by multiple departments. The aging system was operational but considered fragile. The automated guided vehicles transport the TRUPACT-III casks from the transport truck to an indoor processing bay.

“There was a lot of work that was completed through this maintenance outage,” said Sean Dunagan, president and project manager for Nuclear Waste Partnership, the management-and-operations contractor for WIPP. “I want to give a shout-out to the work planners who put the work packages together, all the maintenance crews who went down and performed the work, and the folks in the underground who were diligent about getting all that work done.”

Dunagan added, “We thank them for all of their efforts in making this happen.”