Nearly three years after production was halted following a waste drum rupture in an underground storage panel, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) reopened Monday, said officials with the U.S. Department of Energy.
The repository was shuttered in February 2014 after a chemical reaction inside a drum of inappropriately packed waste caused the lid to burst, contaminating parts of the underground disposal area.
Accompanied by Governor Susana Martinez, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich, U.S. Representatives Steve Pearce and Michelle Lujan Grisham, and Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz recognized the official reopening and resumption of waste operations at WIPP.
WIPP is the nation's first deep-geological facility in the United States for disposal of defense-related transuranic (TRU) radioactive waste and is located 26 miles east of Carlsbad, NM.
"The tireless efforts by the workforce, the contractor and federal management and the community to make WIPP a safer place to fulfill its critical mission is a remarkable feat. Their continued work to enable environmental cleanup in DOE host communities across the country exemplifies the American tradition of rising up to overcome our most technically complex challenges," said Secretary Moniz.
"The Department remains committed to safely and responsibly cleaning up the legacy of the Cold War. And, with continuing cooperation with our local partners and the State of New Mexico, WIPP will once again help meet that mission."
Secretary Moniz later told the The Associated Press that resuming work at WIPP means the nation's multibillion-dollar cleanup of waste from decades of bomb-making and nuclear research can get back on track.
Moniz acknowledged that the closure caused a backlog of radioactive waste to build up at national laboratories and other sites around the country. While some work has resumed at the repository, he's hopeful shipments can start later this year.
Following the February 2014 fire and radiation leak at WIPP, Governor Martinez immediately directed the New Mexico Environment Department to begin a comprehensive investigation, which found multiple violations at both WIPP and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The Martinez Administration moved swiftly to hold the federal government accountable to correct major procedural problems that contributed to the February 2014 incidents.
After extensive negotiations, the Martinez Administration reached the largest settlement ever between a state and the U.S. Department of Energy, providing for $74 million for projects in and around Carlsbad and Los Alamos to prioritize the safety of workers, surrounding communities, and the environment.
The complex, first opened in 1999, was designed as a safe, long-term solution for TRU waste which mostly consists of debris, soil, clothing, tools, rags, residues, and other items that can be contaminated with radioactive elements from nuclear weapons research and testing operations of past defense activities.
The ability to resume operations strengthens America's overall energy security as it reestablishes a safe and environmentally protective method to properly manage nuclear waste from defense-related activities.
The workforce at WIPP successfully completed the first waste emplacement operations on Wednesday, January 4, 2017 with waste from the Savannah River Site that had been recertified and stored in the Waste Handling Building (WHB).
All recertified waste from the WHB will be emplaced prior to accepting new waste shipments from generator sites to WIPP. DOE expects to resume shipments to WIPP in spring 2017.
A schedule for waste shipments has not been finalized, but it is expected that the facility will slowly and safely ramp up to approximately five shipments a week later this year.