Today in military nuclear waste

By | December 7, 2016

Outside the potash hub of Carlsbad, New Mexico lies the Energy Department's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a deep geological depository for nuclear wastes generated in weapons research and production. WIPP, alas, is troubled, and it has been closed since it suffered two accidents in February 2014. In the first, a fire broke out on a salt truck. In the second, a waste drum exploded because workers had made an error involving kitty litter. Yes, kitty litter. Plutonium traveled through the facility's ventilation system, coming into contact with workers and leaking into the environment.

Ever since, WIPP has been trying to whip itself into shape to resume operations. But on November 3, as reported by Lauren Villagran of the Albuquerque Journal, a hunk of rock fell from the roof of Room 4 in Panel 7—a hunk eight feet thick and two-thirds as long as a football field. Two weeks before, as it happens, facility managers had closed a section of the mine because of other rock falls.

WIPP was slated to reopen this month. And if regulatory approvals can be gained, it still is.

Meanwhile, Keith Ridler of the Associated Press reports on Energy Department and Navy plans to build a facility in Idaho that will store naval nuclear waste—at least on an interim basis.

The facility, to be located within the same complex that houses the Idaho National Laboratory, will handle waste from nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. It's to cost $1.65 billion and begin operations in 2024. One problem: Under an agreement resulting from lawsuits in previous decades, nuclear waste that enters the new facility after 2035 can only stay there for six years. After that, it must be removed from Idaho. The waste will complete its radioactive decay in an ideal geological environment located in one of the other 49 states, earning the cheers of an enthusiastic local citizenry. Except that no one knows where to find such a place.

WIPP, maybe?

Publication Name: Albuquerque Journal
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