Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Resumes first shipment in three years
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Resumes first shipment in three years

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has resumed shipping after it was halted for more than three years.

The 2 cubic meter shipment left the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project with little fanfare Thursday afternoon and headed down the road to Blackfoot, destined eventually for Carlsbad, N.M.

It’s a significant step toward getting transuranic waste out of Idaho, but it likely will fall far short of what’s required to meet a deadline set forth in the 1995 Settlement Agreement.

The shipment’s destination is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a storage facility that was shut down in 2014 following a pair of accidents that resulted in a low-level release of radioactive material. WIPP reopened earlier this year, but it has been accepting far fewer shipments, with plans to slowly ramp up the number it takes in.

“The Idaho site took a concerted effort to ensure all people, processes and materials were ready to resume shipments to WIPP,” DOE spokesperson Danielle Miller said. “Resuming shipments to WIPP provides a path for transuranic waste out of Idaho.”

WIPP’s closure has meant that the Idaho Cleanup Project’s work to retrieve, treat and repackage the waste for shipment, but without a place to take it, has left steel barrels containing the waste simply piling up.

Retrieval efforts commenced in 2003, and the Idaho Cleanup Project announced that task was completed last month. Much of the waste still has to be treated by the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project and repackaged for transport.

DOE officials previously said the Idaho Cleanup Project would send about 61 shipments to WIPP this year, more than any other site in the country. But that’s only half the amount originally anticipated.

And Idaho had, at last count, more than 20,000 individual waste containers to ship out of the state, an amount that would require more than 900 shipments to remove.

So while the resumed shipments mean progress toward removing transuranic waste from Idaho, it remains unlikely that the Department of Energy will be able to meet a key deadline set out in the 1995 Settlement Agreement, which requires all transuranic waste to be out of the state by the end of 2018.

“The Department is currently unlikely to meet the 1995 Idaho Settlement agreement milestone to complete the removal of (transuranic) waste from the Idaho site by the end of 2018 due to the cessation of (transuranic) waste shipments to WIPP between February 2014 and January 2017,” Miller said.

The agreement gives the state a single enforcement mechanism when DOE fails to meet such milestones: Blocking small quantities of spent fuel from being shipped into the state for research purposes at Idaho National Laboratory.

INL already has been blocked from importing such shipments because of delays getting the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit up and running, and the likely inability to meet the transuranic waste milestone will further complicate efforts to ship in research quantities.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and other state leaders have favored granting INL a waiver to bring in shipments, but that move has been opposed by Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

“This shipment represents a positive step for the people of Idaho, INL and the Department of Energy,” Wasden said in a statement. “I remain hopeful and optimistic DOE can continue building on its recent accomplishments by successfully starting operation of the IWTU to treat liquid waste at (DOE’s Idaho site). I look forward to continued cooperation with both DOE and INL.”

Efforts Monday to reach Otter were unsuccessful.

Most of Idaho’s transuranic waste came from the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, a shuttered site used to manufacture nuclear weapons components.

Transuranic waste includes a wide variety of materials — from sludge to clothing to dirt — that has been contaminated with elements with a higher atomic number than uranium, principally plutonium. Most of that waste was originally buried in pits and trenches around a 97-acre dump in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

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