WIPP Update

January 21, 2015

Roof Separation Highlights Bolting Priority

On January 15, Mining and Ground Control Engineers at WIPP discovered that a portion of the ceiling in the Panel 3 access drift had fallen in a restricted access area. The roof fall was discovered during routine ground control and bulkhead inspections conducted by WIPP geotechnical staff, and the section that fell was estimated to be approximately 8’ long by 8’wide and 24” thick. Access to this area has been restricted since November 2014 due to ground control concerns, and no WIPP personnel were present at the time of the fall. The area where the fall occurred is also known to contain low levels of radioactive contamination as a result of the February 14, 2014, radiological release.
This event highlights the need to continue prioritizing roof bolting and ground control in both the contaminated and uncontaminated areas of the WIPP underground facility in order to ensure safety and habitability in the underground. This area was originally scheduled to be re-bolted during the annual outage in February 2014. The outage was suspended as a result of the fire and radiological incidents, and the bolting was not performed. WIPP geotechnical inspections conducted in November 2014 identified seven areas in the underground facility where access was restricted due to significant bolt loss. Barriers and signs were installed to identify these restricted areas, and workers are reminded of these restrictions as part of daily pre-job briefings before entering the underground facility. The area where the roof fall occurred was one of the seven locations previously identified.
Roof bolting resumed in mid-November of 2014, and ground control engineers have indicated that the area where the roof fall occurred can be re-bolted and recovered. The map to the right identifies the areas where progress has been made to catch up on the backlog of ground control and maintenance activities, as well as areas where access is restricted until bolting activities can be completed.


Access restricted areas needing ground control

Performed bolting activities

WIPP Recovery Plan details strategy for resuming operations by 2016

<click image above to view plan>

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) Recovery Plan outlines the necessary steps to resume limited waste disposal operations in the first quarter of calendar year 2016. The plan includes the projected schedule and costs associated with resumption of waste emplacement at WIPP.

WIPP operations were suspended following an underground truck fire and a radiological release in February 2014. The recovery plan was issued on Sept. 30, 2014.

Did you know?

Deep Geologic Disposal in Thick Salt Formations is Not In Question

As you read the WIPP Recovery Plan strategy for resuming operations in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, you will see that steps are being taken to respond to all observations and recommendations from the accident investigators and other agencies’ experts who provided reviews of operations and the physical facilities.  It should be noted that these recommendations involve such things as equipment maintenance, facility housekeeping, waste treatment, and safety-systems and culture.  All the recommendations address operational issues, in other words.  None of the experts’ reports find any problem with deep geologic disposal or the use of deep salt formations as a host medium.  As early as the 1950s, the National Academy of Sciences recommended deep disposal of long-lived TRU radioactive wastes in geologically stable formations, specifically identifying salt formations as promising particularly long and secure containment.  Nothing about the WIPP events of February 2014 calls into question this National Academy recommendation.

For more information about WIPP, see our Fact Sheets.

About WIPP

The nation's only deep geologic repository for nuclear waste

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is a deep geologic repository for permanent disposal of a specific type of waste that is the byproduct of the nation's nuclear defense program.

CH and RH WasteWIPP is the nation's only repository for the disposal of nuclear waste known as transuranic, or TRU, waste. It consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements. Disposal of transuranic waste is critical to the cleanup of Cold War nuclear production sites. Waste from DOE sites around the country is sent to WIPP for permanent disposal.

TRU waste is categorized as "contact-handled" or "remote-handled" based on the amount of radiation dose measured at the surface of the waste container. Contact-handled waste has a radiation dose rate not greater than 200 millirem (mrem) per hour, while remote-handled waste can have a dose rate up to 1,000 rem per hour. About 96 percent of the waste to be disposed at WIPP is contact-handled.

TRU waste is long-lived and has to be isolated to protect public health and the environment. Deep geologic disposal in salt beds was chosen because the salt is free of flowing water, easily mined, impermeable and geologically stable. Salt rock also naturally seals fractures and closes openings.

The WIPP site, located in southeast New Mexico about 26 miles from Carlsbad, was constructed in the 1980s for disposal of defense-generated TRU waste. The underground repository is carved out of a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed formed 250 million years ago. TRU waste is disposed of 2,150-feet underground in rooms mined from the salt bed.

WIPP has been disposing of legacy TRU waste since 1999, cleaning up 22 generator sites nationwide.