BY GEORGE LOBSENZ
Amid a complex transition of cleanup operations at the site and continued delays in the scheduled reopening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, analysts at Los Alamos National Laboratory have determined that the nuclear weapons facility may hit its storage limit for transuranic waste by fiscal year 2017, which starts in October 2016, IHS The Energy Daily has learned.
The looming waste storage limit, disclosed by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), comes as DOE is planning to hire a new cleanup and waste management contractor at Los Alamos in the wake of waste management mistakes at the lab that led to a February 2014 radioactive leak at the department’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the sole disposal site for transuranic waste from DOE sites.
The leak from a Los Alamos waste drum caused extensive contamination in WIPP’s underground disposal caverns, forcing a shutdown of the New Mexico facility.
DOE had hoped to partially reopen WIPP for limited transuranic waste disposal operations by March 2016, but the agency recently announced it would not be able to meet that date due to delays in needed safety improvements at the repository.
In a July 31 press release, DOE did not identify a new target date for restarting operations, saying only that it expected to have by the fall a revised cost and schedule for addressing WIPP’s safety problems and reopening the site.
That delay means Los Alamos could hit its transuranic waste limit before WIPP reopens, according to the DNFSB disclosure about the buildup of waste at the lab. The looming waste storage limit was cited in an August 14 memo to DNFSB headquarters from one of the board’s site inspectors at Los Alamos.
The memo said senior DOE and contractor officials at Los Alamos, along with DOE officials from WIPP and DOE headquarters had conducted a workshop on transuranic waste management issues, including safety issues involving storage of nitrate salt wastes at Los Alamos—the same kind of wastes that led to the WIPP leak.
“The overarching objective of the workshop was to achieve alignment amongst these parties in the midst of an extremely complex situation that includes …resolving numerous safety basis issues, treating the remediated nitrate salt wastes, and the inability of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to receive wastes,” the memo said.
“Of likely interest to the board, Los Alamos National Laboratory analysts currently forecast the potential for transuranic waste accumulation to reach the site’s total estimated storage capacity, including Area G, Technical Area 55 and the yet to be completed Transuranic Waste Facility, in approximately fiscal year 2017.”
Since the federal government’s fiscal year begins in October, fiscal year 2017 begins in October 2016.
Los Alamos officials did not respond to inquiries asking about the looming waste storage limit and what they will do if the site hits the limit before WIPP reopens.
Meanwhile, DOE signaled Thursday that it will be at least a year before the new Los Alamos cleanup contractor comes on board. The agency announced that it was awarding a $309 million “bridge contract” to the current lab operator, Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS), under which it will continue to handle cleanup and management of legacy waste at the New Mexico lab for a minimum of a year; DOE will have the option to extend the contract for two further six-month periods.
DOE said in a press release that the bridge contract will serve as “an interim action to facilitate successful completion of the necessary near-term work scope with the least amount of disruption, and provide [the department] sufficient time to competitively award a performance-based incentive contract for the longer-term legacy cleanup requirements” at Los Alamos.
The length of the bridge contract indicates that LANS could still be in charge of waste management at Los Alamos when the transuranic waste limit is hit.
In a related development Thursday, DOE’s WIPP office announced that progress had been made toward reopening the site. It said it had completed decontamination and structural support activities in WIPP’s Panel 7 disposal area, which will be used when waste emplacement operations resume.
However, DOE added that “a significant number of activities, including installation and testing of interim and supplemental ventilation; completion of safety documentation and safety management program development; management assessments, and operational readiness reviews, will be necessary before waste emplacement can resume.”