A New Mexico public interest group expressed concerns Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Energy will not meet its deadline for reopening the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository, threatening to delay waste shipments from Savannah River Site indefinitely.
Don Hancock, of the Southwest Research and Information Center, said he doubts the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., will resume full operations in February 2018, four years after a fire and radiological release forced closure of the underground repository in an ancient salt bed.
Hancock, director of the nuclear waste program for the Albuquerque-based group, delivered a presentation on the facility during the Savannah River Site’s Citizens Advisory Board meeting in New Ellenton, S.C.
“We don’t know how long it’s going to take. The DOE has a schedule. I don’t think that schedule is going to be met,” Hancock said.
Significant technical work and financing demands create a major challenge for reopening the site, Hancock said. Although salt mines exist across the world, reopening a contaminated salt mine following a radiological release is unprecedented and the federal government has no model to follow, he said.
An underground truck caught fire at the repository on Feb. 5, 2014. Nine days later, a radiological release from a 55-gallon drum contaminated workers. The site has not received shipments of transuranic waste – a low-level waste that includes tools, lab coats, debris and other items contaminated with radiation – from SRS or other DOE sites since the incidents.
SRS transports waste containers on Interstate 20 through seven states to WIPP. The South Carolina site sends the third-greatest volume of waste to the underground repository, Hancock said.
Karen Patterson, a member of the S.C. Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council, said WIPP plays an important role in cleanup at SRS and other DOE sites. She reiterated the need to reopen the facility to prevent the waste from staying at SRS.
“Although no site is perfect, salt disposal is a very good place for radioactive waste,” Patterson said.
Bert Crapse, the solid waste program manager at SRS, said the site has sent 1,652 shipments to WIPP. The remaining 537-cubic-meters of transuranic waste are packaged in containers ready to be sent, he said.
Hancock said many factors are not known about the radiological release, such as the cause, the radionuclides and toxic chemicals released, decontamination processes and measures needed to prevent future incidents.
“Unfortunately, more than 13 months after the incidents we still don’t know a number of very important things,” he said.