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Prohibited Waste comes to WIPP - and Goes Back to Idaho

The continuing problems of inadequately characterized (examined) waste at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), in violation of state and federal requirements, resulted in a drum of waste with prohibited liquids arriving at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) on June 25, 2007. When the violation was discovered more than three weeks later, shipments to WIPP were reduced and then stopped for more than two weeks while the drum was retrieved from the WIPP underground and shipped back to INL on August 18.

Among other things, the serious violation showed that the requirements instituted in response to previous incidents were still not sufficient. INL shipments are critical for the Department of Energy (DOE) to meet a legal agreement with the State of Idaho and to show that WIPP is functioning adequately. Up to now, those pressures have predominated, so it is unclear whether the necessary measures will finally be implemented. But on this occasion, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) is requiring full compliance with permit requirements and the removal of the uncharacterized waste. Nevertheless, shipments to WIPP resumed on August 21, even though not all additional changes to prevent recurring problems had been implemented.

On June 23, the INL Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project (AMWTP) shipped a 55-gallon drum (BN10161094) of nuclear waste to WIPP. That container and others arrived at WIPP on June 25, and were emplaced underground in Panel 4, Room 6 on June 27. At that time, no one realized that the drum contained liquids that are prohibited at WIPP, so that the container should not have been shipped to the site.

The WIPP truck carrying prohibited waste back to Idaho breaks down and has to be towed.

On July 16, personnel at the AMWTP found waste drum number BN10106194 that was supposed to have been in that June 23 shipment. They then realized that a drum had been substituted in that June 23 shipment that was uncertified. Records of radiography (similar to an x-ray) showed that the drum was rejected because it contained prohibited liquids, as had 6 of 14 other drums radiographed at the time. On July 17, INL informed DOE WIPP officials, who notified the NMED that a permit violation had occurred. On July 18, WIPP officials stopped all shipments from AMWTP and had further discussions with NMED officials, as well as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials and members of citizen groups, including SRIC.

WIPP officials then submitted several reports to NMED and EPA to explain what had happened and the measures being taken to prevent recurrence. On July 25, WIPP officials informed NMED that they had “concluded that leaving the emplaced container in the WIPP repository is protective of human health and the environment.” Further, because 36 additional rows of drums had been emplaced in Room 6, it would take some time retrieve the uncharacterized drum.

Citizen groups advocated that the drum be removed, including asking DOE to voluntarily retrieve it and ship it back to INL. They argued that having prohibited waste was a serious violation of the permit that could not be allowed, and that previous problems were clearly not taken seriously enough at INL. More drastic action seemed required so that INL officials would take compliance with requirements more seriously. On July 30, the Albuquerque Journal editorialized that the drum should be removed. The editorial stated, “Safety regs are designed to be followed, even if it means hauling out 36 rows of drums. Perhaps the prospect of repeating that task will make DOE more careful.”

On August 3, NMED Secretary Ron Curry issued a written order requiring removal of the Standard Waste Box (SWB) BN10166592 that contained the uncharacterized drum and three others. He further stated that “NMED will continue to evaluate enforcement action, including monetary penalties, related to this incident.” New Mexico law provides for $10,000 in fines per day of violation; the uncharacterized drum was at WIPP from June 25 to August 8, and because of previous violations, additional fines can be imposed.

Changes needed at INL
The uncharacterized drum was from waste stream ID-RF-S5300-A. That 26,000-drum waste stream of combustible wastes, including flammable solvents, generated at the Rocky Flats Plant, in Colorado, was also the source of the drum with liquids found on November 25, 2006 before it left INL, using the newly instituted “waste confirmation” process. (See Voices, Winter 2006/2007 for more information about that incident.) Despite the history of problems at INL, including from that same waste stream, INL had not taken measures to physically separate drums that had liquids or other prohibited items from drums that could be shipped. Thus, a worker mistakenly included a drum that had been rejected in the June 23 shipment. Because that drum was put into a SWB, there had been no additional visual checking possible at AMWTF or WIPP to ensure that the designated drums were loaded into the SWB.

The AMWTP Corrective Action Plan provided for both “immediate actions” and “investigative and remedial actions.” Immediate actions included verifying that eight additional shipments with 21 overpack payloads included the designated containers and changing operational procedures and training so that additional checking of containers was done as they are overpacked. Among the “actions to preclude recurrence” were to establish separate areas for certified containers and “reject containers” with rope and sign markings. All of those actions had to be implemented before shipments resumed. Two additional “actions to preclude recurrence” were to assess the effectiveness of the new measures, and to implement a plan to take away transportation authorization from INL and have the WIPP Centralized Characterization Program staff from Carlsbad take over that responsibility. Neither the assessment nor the new transportation management were in place when shipments resumed. There is not even an agreed date when the new transportation certification team will take over to ensure that problems cannot recur.

INL made 442 of 643 shipments to WIPP during 2007 until all shipments were stopped. The remaining shipments came from Los Alamos, NM; Hanford, WA; and Savannah River, SC. Thus, INL shipments are vital to meeting the legally mandated requirements of the 1995 Idaho-DOE settlement agreement that requires 3,000 cubic meters of waste (approximately 375 shipments) to leave Idaho each year. Further, without INL shipments, it would be hard to justify the $200 million+ annual budget for WIPP.

Retrieving the drum at WIPP
Because no emplaced waste containers had been retrieved from the WIPP underground, simulations had to be done before retrieval operations could begin. Where to put the 36 rows of containers blocking access to the uncharacterized drum had to be determined. At one point, DOE officials planned to move the drums out and then return them to room 6. That idea was abandoned, and instead containers were placed in rooms 5 and 4. Room 6 would be filled with newly arriving containers.

Waste containers are generally stacked three high with a large sack of magnesium oxide (MgO) on top. The MgO is to reduce the amount of gas that is generated as the waste drums corrode. To avoid additional handling of the MgO sacks, they were usually left in place while the top layer of waste drums was removed. There were no reported problems during the retrieval process.

This incident ended with no known releases of radioactive or hazardous materials and the uncharacterized drum arriving back to Idaho, though it was delayed several hours because of mechanical problems with the truck that required towing near Santa Fe. But similar problems could recur because of the continuing problems posed by thousands of drums of waste with prohibited items (such liquids, flammable chemicals, explosives) and pressures to get waste out of Idaho (and other sites) together with safety procedures that are not fail safe. Thus, there will be a continuing need for improvements in DOE practices and regulatory requirements.

– Don Hancock

WIPP website: http://www.wipp.energy.gov/
NMED WIPP website: http://www.nmenv.state.nm.us/wipp/index.html
SRIC website: http://www.sric.org

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