Problems at WIPP are felt in Oak Ridge

transuranic.jpgThe Department of Energy’s new contractor at the Transuranic Waste Processing Center — where the nastiest wastes in the Oak Ridge stockpile are processed and prepared for disposal — will face a number of challenges in carrying out that work.

North Wind Solutions LLC officially took over responsibility for the TWPC on Friday, replacing Wastren Advantage.

DOE’s Office of Environmental Management wants the Oak Ridge plant to continue processing the radioactive wastes even though the nation’s disposal facility for long-lived radioactive materials — the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico — has been shut down since February 2014 because of a fire in the underground repository and multiple safety concerns.

Mark Whitney, DOE’s principal deputy assistant secretary for environmental management, was in town this week and gave the keynote address at a conference in Knoxville. Whitney reaffirmed that WIPP will not resume operations in March, which had been a target date, although DOE remains hopeful that the waste repository will reopen sometime in 2016.

The ongoing uncertainty at WIPP is creating uncertainty at Oak Ridge and other DOE sites trying to deal with their backlog of high-hazard radioactive wastes.

Whitney and Sue Cange, DOE’s cleanup chief in Oak Ridge, visited the waste-processing plant on Wednesday to thank WAI for its work over the past five years and to welcome North Wind’s management team.

Asked about the impacts of the prolonged shutdown at WIPP, Cange Oak Ridge was “in a fortunate position,” because there is storage space available at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for some of the processed waste.

However, Oak Ridge did not have any storage containers acceptable for storing the hottest waste — known as remote-handled transuranic waste. In fact, according to Cange, nobody had that type of container, so DOE and its Oak Ridge contractors came up with a first-of-its-kind design in recent months and hired companies to manufacture the containers.

“Because we can’t ship it directly to WIPP and have to put it in storage, we have to make sure we have proper storage containers for that high-activity waste,” Cange said.

Mike Koentop, executive officer of the cleanup program, said DOE estimates it will need about 240 of the special storage containers. So far, about 90 have been purchased, and nine of them have already been loaded with highly radioactive waste, he said.

After the waste are processed and packaged, the storage containers are transferred from the Transuranic Waste Processing Center to a storage facility operated by URS-CH2M Oak Ridge, DOE’s cleanup manager in Oak Ridge.

The containers will remain there until WIPP reopens and begins accepting radioactive wastes for disposal.

A team of experts — known as the Central Characterization Project — is currently stationed at the Oak Ridge processing plant to certify that wastes are properly packaged and suitable for disposal at WIPP.

Asked if the newly processed wastes will have to be recertified later if they remain in storage for months or longer, Cange said that’s unlikely.

“But if certification requirements change (in the wake of the problems at WIPP), then we may have to do some additional work,” she said. “However, that was a risk I was willing to take because it’s important that we continue with our waste-processing campaign and not have delays in our processing of material.”

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.