WIPP could run out of disposal space, GAO says

December 4, 2020, 9:29AMRadwaste Solutions

The aboveground portion of WIPP’s current ventilation system. Photo: GAO

A study of the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico has found that the repository faces long-term issues with ensuring sufficient physical space and statutory capacity to dispose of the federal government’s inventory of transuranic (TRU) waste. WIPP is the United States’ only repository for the disposal of TRU waste generated by the DOE’s nuclear weapons research and production.

The Government Accountability Office study, Better Planning Needed to Avoid Potential Disruptions at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (CAO-21-48), was published on November 19.

Pu pit production: The DOE recently increased the statutory capacity of WIPP by changing the method of calculating waste volume to exclude the air space around some waste packages. The DOE also plans to expand the physical space of the repository by excavating new disposal rooms, called panels.

The GAO, however, found that the DOE may run out of room to meet future TRU waste disposal needs at WIPP if significant volumes of waste are added to DOE’s inventory or if the permit modification authorizing the revised volume counting method is successfully challenged in court. Most notably, the GAO notes that the National Nuclear Security Administration’s plan to produce around 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030 could generate 566 cubic meters of additional TRU waste a year for up to 50 years.

DOE officials informed the GAO that in addition to the TRU waste generated through plutonium pit production, other waste streams are currently under consideration for disposal at WIPP but are not yet part of DOE’s TRU waste inventory because they do not meet the criteria for inclusion in the inventory.

The GAO also found that the DOE does not have assurance that WIPP’s planned additional physical space will be constructed before the existing space is full, which would result in a potential interruption to disposal operations.

Workforce challenges: In addition to the space constraints, the GAO report found that WIPP may not have sufficient staff to address challenges in completing key ventilation projects needed to return the site to full waste disposal operations following the accidental release of radiological contamination in 2014. Currently, the DOE is undertaking two capital asset projects to increase ventilation to the underground—the installation of the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System and the construction of a new utility shaft. According to the GAO, the DOE is facing challenges in identifying contractors who are qualified to execute these two projects, as well as in obtaining the necessary regulatory approvals to complete them.

Recommendations: In its report, the GAO recommended that the DOE identify and analyze options to address staffing vacancies, update its schedule for adding physical space at WIPP, and develop a plan for mitigating the impacts that an interruption to WIPP’s waste disposal operations would have on the DOE’s TRU cleanup program. The DOE agreed with all three recommendations.

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