Cost of reviving WIPP after leak: $500 million

A 2010 aerial photograph of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

The U.S. Department of Energy aims to reopen the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, at least partially, by April 2016, according to a recovery plan unveiled Tuesday. But full resumption of operations at the underground nuclear waste repository might have to wait up to five years, federal officials said.

The estimated cost of bringing WIPP back to life could top $500 million, according to the report. WIPP stopped receiving waste shipments in February, when a truck fire followed by a radiation leak happened within days of each other.

“DOE is committed to reopening WIPP,” Mark Whitney, the department’s acting assistant secretary of environmental management, told reporters Tuesday. He acknowledged the “aggressive plan” seeks to open the waste storage facility sooner than many early estimates, which suggested WIPP would be closed until 2017 or beyond.

But a nuclear watchdog that closely monitors WIPP questioned whether the Energy Department has underestimated the time it will take to resume operations and understated the cost.

“Thirty-five years ago, DOE was saying WIPP was going to be open by the mid-’80s. Then 25 years ago, in the late ’80s, they were saying WIPP was going to be open in the early ’90s, and it didn’t open until 1999,” said Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program at the Southwest Research and Information Center. “They weren’t realistically looking at what it was going to take to open WIPP then, and now they’re not being realistic about when it will reopen. It will take a lot longer than that, and it’s going to cost a lot more than they’re saying.”

The investigation into the cause of the radiation leak has focused on a burst drum of nuclear waste stored at WIPP that came from Los Alamos National Laboratory. It was highly acidic and contained nitrate salts, organic kitty litter used as absorbent, an acid neutralizer that chemists have since questioned as potentially reactive and a lead-laden glove dropped in the mix during treatment of the waste at Los Alamos.

A drum with similar composition sits in a subterranean panel at WIPP near where the breach occurred, but that second drum has not ruptured, Whitney said.

The investigation into the exact cause of the leak could last until the end of the year, Whitney said. But that didn’t stop the Energy Department from announcing its plans for WIPP’s future.

“If we learn additional things in that last [investigation] report that cause us to change course or do things slightly different, of course we will do that,” Whitney said.

Without knowing the cause of the leak, the extent of the contamination in the WIPP caverns or whether more breached drums may be lurking in the cavern, Hancock said the Energy Department’s recovery plan could be premature.

“Nowhere in the report does it say the fire and radiation leak that happened this year will never happen again,” Hancock said.

Hancock said he favors an independent technical investigation and public study to develop a path forward at WIPP that is disconnected from the Energy Department and its contractor operating WIPP, Nuclear Waste Partnership.

“They’re saying, ‘Trust us with the safety standards. We’ll define what’s safe or not.’ That’s not acceptable,” he said. “We don’t trust them. They’ve shown themselves not to be trustworthy.”

Getting WIPP fit to resume even preliminary activities by early 2016 will cost an estimated $240 million, and plans to install a new ventilation system and exhaust shaft that would accommodate more belowground work in the salt beds could cost up to $309 million more, according to the recovery plan.

Hancock described the cost estimate outlined in the plan as “dishonest” because it neglects to mention the more than $150 million in operating expenses at WIPP for the fiscal year ahead, when even the most optimistic estimates envision WIPP will remain mothballed.

Full-scale resumption of waste placement at WIPP can happen only after the ventilation and exhaust improvements are made, according to the plan. That could be as far out as 2019, Whitney said, but he was reluctant to commit to a firm deadline.

“I don’t want to get into establishing artificial deadlines,” he said.

Hancock said the Energy Department’s goal of partially reopening WIPP within the next 18 months would be virtually impossible if the department were to follow standard regulatory protocol for the waste dump, which includes public comment on the proposed changes.

“It’s not a recovery plan, it’s a shut-out-the-public plan,” Hancock said. “That’s not going to happen. The public is not going to be shut out of this process. It’s a nonstarter.”

New Mexico Environment Department spokesman Jim Winchester confirmed that the state agency, which has permitting authority over WIPP, had received the Energy Department’s recovery plan.

“It is too early to comment on the substance of the proposal,” Winchester said. “The plan will be reviewed and evaluated by NMED technical staff.”

Under the recovery plan, waste generated by contamination at WIPP that resulted from the February radiation leak is first in line to be processed and stored at the repository when it resumes operation. Whitney said nuclear waste from decades of nuclear weapons production that is backing up at sites around the nation, such as Los Alamos, will be assessed and prioritized for shipment to the tomb next.

In addition to the physical changes, the plan recommends decontamination of the underground facilities at WIPP, fortifying the stability of the salt beds, and developing a safety plan that assures a safer and more appropriate response than the reaction to the February emergencies. The department’s Accident Investigation Board identified numerous failures in its assessment of the response.

The recovery plan also calls for systemic improvements, such as better training of the WIPP workforce and more attention to regulatory compliance.

Whitney said the recovery report and the accident investigations that informed it spotlight the need for waste to be handled more safely “from the time it starts at a generator site until it’s placed at WIPP.”

In a joint statement Tuesday, U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both New Mexico Democrats, embraced the Energy Department’s path forward for WIPP and pledged to support funding for the recovery plan.

“This is a reasonable framework for moving forward,” the statement said. “It incorporates recommendations from the Accident Investigation Board to improve operations and lays the groundwork to reinstate a culture in which safety is the top priority.”

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.