March 21, 2014

Kenneth Fletcher
Los Alamos Study Group

While the Department of Energy this week announced that it plans to send transuranic waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory to Waste Control Specialists for temporary storage, there is a tight time frame for completing preparations for the shipments. DOE has committed to New Mexico to completing its campaign for removal of aboveground transuranic waste by a June deadline, despite the indefinite shutdown of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Shipments to WCS will need to start in early April in order to meet the deadline, according to DOE. However, they cannot take place until the completion of a National Environmental Policy Act analysis—and it is unclear how long that will take.

WCS expects to be able to accept the "vast majority of the remaining LANL waste," according to company spokesman Chuck McDonald. However, a portion of the LANL material that may not meet criteria for acceptance at WCS may need to either be sent to another DOE site for temporary storage or repackaged before being sent to WCS. "Based on evaluations to date, we predict that the vast majority requires no additional repackaging or recertification. However, the detailed review of the inventory is still continuing," a DOE spokesperson said.

Waste Will Go From WCS to WIPP After Startup

The waste in question is the last portion of 3,706 cubic meters of transuranic waste stored aboveground at LANL that were targeted in a framework agreement with New Mexico for removal by June—a deal brokered after a wildfire in 2011 threatened the material. The campaign had been in its final stages when WIPP shut down indefinitely last month due to two incidents: a salt truck fire and a radiation release. DOE officials have promised to meet the June deadline. "The LANL waste will be staged so that it can be disposed of as soon as WIPP resumes waste receipt operations," J. R. Stroble, DOE’s Director of the National Transuranic Program, said in a statement. "These shipments will be managed just like other WIPP shipments. The Department will continue to evaluate potential alternatives for other DOE transuranic waste generating sites until WIPP is fully operational."

This week WIPP contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership said it would subcontract with WCS to stage the waste at the commercial low-level waste disposal facility about 75 miles from WIPP. "A letter contract was awarded on Monday, not to exceed $500,000. It anticipates a definitized contract in the near future, which will have more specific terms. It is DOE’s intent that NWP acquire temporary staging only until WIPP resumes operations," the DOE spokesperson said. NWP spokesman Donavan Mager said in a written response: "The terms and conditions are still be negotiated as part of a final contract to be completed by the end of March."

WCS Will Place Waste in Covered Facility

The LANL waste will be placed in an indoor covered storage facility at WCS. "The WCS workforce is well trained and experienced in handling this type of waste," WCS President Rod Baltzer said in a statement. "We will inspect all incoming canisters to insure that they are sealed and there has been no breach. WCS has a sophisticated inspection and monitoring system in the buildings where the canisters will be stored to insure the safety of our employees and the environment." Baltzer also emphasized that WCS has never had a wildfire, and that the storage facilities have a sprinkler system and there is a fire truck on site.

State Applauds the Move

New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn applauded the move. "Governor [Susana] Martinez has worked aggressively and effectively with the federal government to make sure they fulfill their promise of removing the above-ground transuranic waste at Los Alamos and storing it in a safe and appropriate manner," Flynn said in a statement. "She continues to work them to accomplish this goal on schedule, which is critical in light of the rapidly approaching fire season. It’s up to experts at DOE to determine what steps they need to take to do this job safely and properly, and up to New Mexico and Texas to ensure this is done within the confines of our regulatory requirements. We are very encouraged by DOE’s effort to keep the 3706 campaign on track even under these difficult circumstances."

‘The Problems With This Plan are Legion’

But the WCS option was met with skepticism by Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, an activist organization. "The problems with this plan are legion," Mello said in an e-mail. Finishing the NEPA analysis in time "will set some sort of speed record," Mello said. Problems also include the need to transport the material twice and load and unload it twice. "This is all about appearances and public relations and visual impact (hidden is better, some say)," Mello said. He continued: "There is no significant fire danger for this waste at LANL. Upon information and belief, most flammable drums have been shipped and there is essentially no danger of wildfire, the surrounding vegetation having been burned."

But Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) also hailed the decision. "Removing waste from the mesa in Los Alamos before fire season is critical to ensure safety in the greater Los Alamos community," Udall said in a statement. "The state’s June 2014 deadline was firm and non-negotiable, as I made clear in repeated conversations with Energy Secretary [Ernest] Moniz since the Feb. 14 accident at WIPP. I’m pleased we have a temporary solution that will ensure there will not be any significant disruption in cleanup efforts. By law, WIPP is the only permanent repository for TRU waste from Los Alamos and other nuclear weapons facilities, and I look forward to continued progress in the recovery March 21, 2014 Weapons Complex Monitor # ExchangeMonitor Publications, Inc. 7 efforts. In the meantime, I will be pressing DOE for details about its transportation plan, including the impact on roads, traffic and security through Southeast New Mexico. DOE needs to ensure the resources are in place for safe transportation and security."

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