view counter

Nuclear wasteUnderground recovery process at WIPP begins

Published 11 March 2014

Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP), the management and operations contractor at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), said it has initiated the first phase of an underground recovery process which will lead to the resumption of nuclear waste disposal operations at WIPP. Initial results show no airborne radioactive contamination in the underground shafts.

Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP), the management and operations contractor at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), said it has initiated the first phase of an underground recovery process that will lead to the resumption of nuclear waste disposal operations at WIPP.

Over the weekend (7 and 8 March), radiological and air quality instruments were lowered down the Salt Handling and the Air Intake Shafts, to check for airborne radioactivity and to determine air quality. NWP says the preliminary findings indicate no detectable radioactive contamination in the air or on the equipment lowered and returned to the surface. Air quality results were also normal. These results were expected because the shafts which were sampled were not in the air flow path coming from the area where the radiation release originated.

“This process is critical in helping determine the proper personal protective equipment needed for our personnel entries,” said Tammy Reynolds, WIPP Recovery Process Manager for NWP. “We will do a final analysis of these samples before we send anyone down. The safety of our employees is foremost during this process.”

“This is a positive way to begin the recovery process. In order to get to this point, a lot of work has taken place and it involved a lot of time-consuming activities,” said Joe Franco, manager of the Carlsbad Field Office. “But the recovery process is underway. We are receiving information that will get us to the next steps in the process.”

After completing required safety inspections of the hoisting equipment and the Salt Handling and Air Intake Shafts, the next step in the recovery process will be sending qualified site personnel into the WIPP underground facility, which may occur as soon as the end of the week.

The specialists entering WIPP will determine the mine’s stability and attempt to identify the source of the release.

Once the team completes an inspection of the shafts to ensure they are safe, they will check for levels of air and surface contamination between the Air Intake and Salt Handling shafts. At that point, the team will make its way down to the area of the repository where operations were being conducted prior to the radiological release, doing radiological sampling and checking for quality as they go.

Then the team will isolate the source of the release and implement a plan to remove the contamination hazard.

NWP also updated the bioassay results, saying that the results of bioassay testing of employees who may have been exposed during the recent radiation release at WIPP continue to come in. As of 8 March, a total of seventeen employees have tested positive for just over background for contamination in fecal samples (this includes the thirteen employees who were initially tested immediately after the event, and other employees who have been subsequently tested). There has been no detectable contamination in urine samples, which indicates contamination was not inhaled into the lungs.

NP says the levels of exposure are extremely low, and none of the employees is expected to experience any health effects from the exposures.

The four most recent positive results were at the barely detectable level (about .1 disintegrations per minute), and reflect extremely low levels of exposure.