Nuclear waste repository OK’d to reopen

A team of state regulators tour the federal government’s only underground nuclear waste repository Dec. 8 near Carlsbad, N.M., as part of an inspection necessary before the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant can resume operations. Associated Press

A New Mexico nuclear waste repository that served as a key resource to Idaho’s cleanup project has been approved to reopen this month after a nearly three-year closure following a radiation accident.

The U.S. Department of Energy on Dec. 23 authorized contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership to resume placing radioactive waste in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, outside Carlsbad. The day before, the New Mexico Environment Department also said it had approved the underground salt cavern facility to restart operations following an inspection.

The approvals allow transuranic nuclear waste that had been stored above the facility to be lowered into the mine starting early this month, DOE officials said. Their initial goal was to have waste emplacement begin last month, but hinted late last year it would be slightly delayed.

DOE officials previously said the process of emplacing waste already stored above the facility will take 90 days. That means Idaho won’t send shipments from its growing stockpile of more than 20,000 low-level nuclear waste containers until at least April.

A WIPP spokesman did not immediately return a call Tuesday seeking information about a shipping schedule or updated timeline.

The containers have been stored at the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project, operated by contractor Fluor Idaho, west of Idaho Falls. The waste includes tools, rags, clothing, sludge and dirt — anything contaminated with a transuranic element such as plutonium. Most of it was shipped and dumped here decades ago from the now-closed Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver, where nuclear weapon components were made. For years, DOE cleanup contractors have been working to clean up and repackage the mess that was left behind.

When shipments from DOE sites around the country resume, they will be on a limited schedule of five per week, down from at least 17 per week in the past.

The first of two unrelated accidents in February 2014 was a salt haul truck that caught fire. That was followed by a drum of waste bursting open and spewing radioactive material, exposing several workers to low levels of radiation.

“Extensive efforts to identify and implement corrective actions have resulted in a facility that is safer today and we look forward to the facility soon resuming its highly critical mission to dispose of the nation’s defense transuranic waste,” said Todd Shrader, DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office manager, in a statement.

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth