Throughout the 1960s, government scientists searched for an appropriate site for radioactive waste disposal, eventually testing a remote desert area of southeastern New Mexico where, 250 million years earlier, evaporation cycles of the ancient Permian Sea had created a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed.
In 1979, Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). The WIPP facility, located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, N.M., was constructed during the 1980s. Congress limited WIPP to the disposal of defense-generated TRU wastes. In 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certified WIPP for safe, long-term disposal of TRU wastes.
Transuranic, or TRU, waste began accumulating in the 1940s with the beginning of the nation’s nuclear defense program. As early as the 1950s, the National Academy of Sciences recommended deep disposal of long-lived TRU radioactive wastes in geologically stable formations, such as deep salt beds. Sound environmental practices and strict regulations require such wastes to be isolated to protect human health and the environment.
Bedded salt is free of fresh flowing water, easily mined, impermeable and geologically stable; an ideal medium for permanently isolating long-lived radioactive wastes from the environment. However, its most important quality in this application is the way salt rock seals all fractures and naturally closes all openings.
The National Academy of Sciences concludes that the most promising method of disposal of radioactive waste is in salt deposits.
The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chooses an ancient salt bed 26 miles east of Carlsbad for exploratory work in the search for an underground radioactive waste repository site.
Congress authorizes the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) as a research and development facility to demonstrate the safe disposal of radioactive waste from defense activities not regulated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), formerly the AEC, issues a record of decision, based on an environmental impact statement, to proceed with WIPP construction and the first exploratory shaft is drilled. New Mexico Attorney General Jeff Bingaman files a lawsuit in federal court against the DOE and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), which has jurisdiction of the land where WIPP is located, alleging violations of federal and state law. The lawsuit is settled by an agreement for more studies, increased communication with the state, and to address emergency response and highway improvement concerns.
Groundbreaking ceremony held for the Waste Handling Building. A dedication ceremony was held later on September 3, 1987.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes radioactive waste disposal regulations for transuranic (TRU) waste and WIPP, after DOE and the state of New Mexico agree WIPP must comply with EPA regulations.
The NRC certifies DOE’s primary contact-handled (CH) TRU waste shipping cask, the Transuranic Packaging Transporter Model 2 (TRUPACT-II). DOE completes repository construction.
DOE issues a record of decision based on a supplemental environmental impact statement to continue with phased development of WIPP. EPA authorizes the state of New Mexico to issue and enforce a hazardous waste facility permit under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) for disposal of the hazardous components contained in transuranic “mixed” waste.
New Mexico Attorney General Tom Udall files a federal lawsuit against DOE and DOI regarding the withdrawal of land from public use for a WIPP test phase. The lawsuit is later combined with another brought by environmental groups alleging WIPP lacks interim status under RCRA that would allow WIPP to be treated as if a hazardous waste facility permit had been issued.
U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn imposes an injunction, ruling the Interior Secretary exceeded his authority by changing the purpose of the land withdrawal from construction to testing, which includes transporting waste to WIPP. President George H.W. Bush signs into law the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act, which transfers jurisdiction of the land to DOE and includes a number of other provisions, such as prohibiting disposal of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel, setting a disposal limit, and giving EPA responsibility for determining compliance with federal radioactive waste disposal regulations.
DOE announces radioactive waste tests planned for WIPP will be moved to national laboratories. DOE creates the Carlsbad Area Office (CAO), directly linking WIPP with DOE headquarters.
President Clinton signs legislation amending the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act, including the elimination of test phase language.
DOE issues a record of decision based on a second supplemental environmental impact statement to dispose of TRU waste at WIPP. After eight public hearings around the country, EPA certifies that WIPP meets all applicable federal radioactive waste disposal regulations.
Judge Penn rules that the 1992 injunction no longer applies and that WIPP qualifies for interim status under RCRA. The first shipment from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) arrives at WIPP on March 26. Hundreds of employees, local officials and media are present. Shipments are received from Idaho National Environmental and Engineering Laboratory (INEEL) and Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site. The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) issues the WIPP Hazardous Waste Facility Permit.
The NRC certifies the RH-72B for shipping remote-handled (RH) TRU waste and the HalfPACT for heavy drums of CH TRU waste. The first shipment from the Hanford Site and first shipment of “mixed” transuranic waste arrive at WIPP. CAO is elevated to the Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO).
The first shipment from the Savannah River Site (SRS) arrives at WIPP.
The first shipment of waste characterized (container contents verified) by the National TRU Program’s mobile Central Characterization Project arrives at WIPP from SRS. The final shipment of TRU waste to meet a 3,100-cubic-meter project milestone for INEEL arrives two months ahead of schedule.
Underground Panel 1 is filled. The first shipment from Argonne National Laboratory-East arrives at WIPP.
EPA approves DOE characterization plans for RH-TRU waste disposal at WIPP. WIPP receives CH-TRU shipments from the Nevada Test Site (NTS), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory-West, bringing the total number of sites that have shipped to WIPP to nine.
Rocky Flats sends final TRU waste shipment to WIPP, allowing the large quantity waste site to close a year ahead of schedule. Panel 2 is filled. TRU waste cleanup is completed at five small quantity sites, bringing the total to 12 sites.
EPA recertifies WIPP. Mining of underground Panel 5 begins. WIPP receives its 5,000th shipment. NMED issues WIPP permit to dispose of RH-TRU waste.
First shipment of RH-TRU waste arrives at WIPP. The shipment originated from the Idaho National Laboratory. WIPP receives 6,000th shipment. For the 21st time in 20 years, WIPP is awarded the New Mexico Mining Association’s mine operator of the year award for safety.
WIPP disposes its 100,000th waste container underground. The first RH-TRU waste shipment from Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois arrives at WIPP. WIPP receives the first shipment of CH-TRU waste from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
WIPP receives transportation safety award from the United States Transport Council.
DOE submits second Compliance Recertification Application to EPA and the second application for the WIPP Hazardous Waste Facility Permit is submitted to the NMED. WIPP celebrates 10 years of safe operations. First RH-TRU waste shipments arrive from Oak Ridge, SRS, LANL and Vallecitos Nuclear Center. NTS becomes the 15th legacy TRU waste site to be cleaned up. The 8,000th shipment arrives at WIPP.
NMED renews the WIPP Hazardous Waste Facility Permit and EPA recertifies WIPP. WIPP receives the final RH-TRU waste shipment from Vallecitos Nuclear Center in California. Panel 6 mining is completed, Panel 7 mining begins. WIPP surpasses 10 million safe loaded miles to WIPP. Washington TRU Solutions receives contract extension to 2012. NRC issues a Certificate of Compliance for the TRUPACT-III shipping container. The 9,000th shipment arrives at WIPP. WIPP records 1,194 shipments in 2010. Cleanup of TRU waste is completed at Vallecitos Nuclear Center and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory-Site 300, making them the 16th and 17th sites to be cleaned up.
The President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future tours WIPP, followed by two days of public meetings in Carlsbad and Albuquerque. Waste disposal operations begin in Panel 6 with the emplacement of RH-TRU waste in Room 7. The first shipment of TRU waste in a TRUPACT-III arrives at WIPP. WIPP receives 10,000th waste shipment. Cleanup of legacy TRU waste is completed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, NRD in New York, Bettis Atomic Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory, marking 21 sites cleaned up.
Mining begins in the north area of mine for Salt Disposal Investigation studies to test the geologic response of salt to elevated temperatures. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez visits WIPP to see final shipments from Sandia National Laboratories. NMED awards WIPP a Green Zia award for environmental conservation. NMED approves use of the shielded container for RH-TRU waste. Two WIPP mine rescue team members are inducted into the National Mine Rescue Hall of Fame. WIPP completes alternate underground disposal route (East-30). Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC becomes the DOE management and operating contractor at WIPP. Sandia National Laboratories becomes the 22nd site to be cleaned up.
Phase I of Salt Disposal Investigations mining is complete. Panel 7 is complete and waste is emplaced; mining of Panel 8 begins. WIPP emplaces the first shielded containers. The 700th RH-TRU shipment arrives at WIPP.
WIPP temporarily suspends underground emplacement operations following a fire on a salt-haul truck. Eighty four employees safely evacuate. The Accident Investigation Board (AIB) initiates an investigation. Days later, a radiological release occurs underground in Room 7, Panel 7 contaminating part of the underground; some airborne contamination is released to the environment. Overall, 22 employees received minor exposures. No contamination was detected off site or in surrounding communities. WIPP’s workforce was relocated in town while response and recovery planning personnel report to the site. The AIB begins Phase I of a radiological release investigation. NMED requires WIPP to expedite closure of Panel 6 and Room 7, Panel 7. WIPP personnel safely reenter the mine to determine the extent of conditions. DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz visits WIPP and pledges support to reopen the facility when it is deemed safe. DOE releases a recovery plan outlining key steps for resuming operations.
The AIB’s Phase II report on the radiological release determines the release resulted from a single LANL drum that contained incompatible materials. The NMED fines WIPP and LANL $73 million. The parties reach a settlement agreement to use the funds for LANL and WIPP safety upgrades. The waste hoist is returned to service. Underground roof bolting activities resume to stabilize the mine. Decontamination efforts get underway in contaminated underground areas. WIPP replaces HEPA filters used to filter exhaust air from the mine which had filled with smoke and airborne contamination. Initial closures for Panel 6 and Room7, Panel 7 complete. Construction begins on Interim and Supplemental Ventilation Systems to provide additional airflow to the underground.
WIPP deploys new mining, waste handling and emergency response equipment. A state of the art Emergency Operations Center is complete. WIPP installs an underground notification system to communicate with workers and identify their locations. The Interim Ventilation System is placed in service. The revised WIPP Documented Safety Analysis and Technical Safety Requirements are implemented. Cold Operations, to prepare for waste emplacement, is successful. WIPP’s Blue Mine Rescue Team wins National Mine Rescue Competition championship in Reno, Nevada. Preliminary work begins on a Permanent Ventilation System. DOE issues revisions to WIPP’s Waste Acceptance Criteria, which include new controls for waste packaging, treatment and certification activities at TRU waste generator sites. In order to focus bolting and other ground control resources on active areas, closure of the far south end of the mine is planned. Contractor and DOE Operational Readiness Reviews are successfully completed. DOE authorizes the resumption of waste emplacement.
Waste emplacement resumes at WIPP on Jan. 4. DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and members of the New Mexico congressional delegation attend a grand re-opening ceremony. Waste stored in the Waste Handling Building, which had not yet been downloaded when the events of 2014 occurred, is the first waste to be emplaced. Waste shipments resume with a shipment from Idaho National Laboratory on April 8.