Oct 3, 2007
October 3, 2007
LOS ALAMOS — Los Alamos National Laboratory has resumed shipping higher-risk plutonium-contaminated waste to the federal government’s underground dump in southeastern New Mexico after improvements to the lab’s waste repackaging facility.
The National Nuclear Security Administration last month certified the facility to repackage containers of hotter radioactive waste.
Los Alamos resumed operations at the Waste Characterization, Reduction and Repackaging facility after NNSA gave it a Category 2 certification, meaning it’s allowed to repackage “high-activity waste” — above a certain level of radioactivity.
The first container of such waste was repackaged and shipped to the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad for permanent burial in September.
“The successful restart of the WCRR facility represents a major milestone in reducing the laboratory’s waste inventory and associated environmental risk,” said Sue Stiger, the lab’s associate director for environmental programs.
Los Alamos has about 325 containers of high-activity waste among 20,000 waste containers at Area G, its radioactive waste storage and disposal area.
Some 235 of the high-activity containers are bound for WIPP in the near term. The remaining 90 hold material such as sludge and must remain at Los Alamos until a disposal strategy can be devised.
About two-thirds of the 235 containers include material that cannot by law be buried at WIPP, such as aerosol cans or bottles of liquid. Those containers will be opened at the repackaging facility, the prohibited items will be removed, and the containers will be repackaged for shipment.
Last year, the lab said it was temporarily storing several hundred drums of waste that were considered too hot to be repackaged at the facility that then existed at the lab. Los Alamos subsequently upgraded the facility.
Certification for the facility required structural improvements to the building, improvements to fire-protection systems, an operations control center and refurbished waste storage areas. Workers also must follow new procedures and safety requirements.
Los Alamos began its Quick to WIPP program to expedite shipment of the most radioactive lower-level waste after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the East Coast and the 2000 Cerro Grande wildfire that burned through parts of the town of Los Alamos.
Lab officials had hoped to finish sending such waste to WIPP by the end of 2006, but the program has been delayed, prompting environmental groups to call for better lab storage facilities.
WIPP, which opened in March 1999, stores plutonium-contaminated waste from defense work 2,150 feet underground in ancient salt beds.