The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, permanently stores transuranic waste, which is a byproduct of the nation’s nuclear weapons work. This waste consists of materials contaminated with radioactive elements, mostly plutonium. These elements have atomic numbers greater than uranium on the periodic table of elements (thus the name “trans-uranic,” or beyond uranium).
Some of the waste WIPP receives comes from the remediation of sites across the country where atomic weapons were produced during World War II and through the Cold War. This legacy waste is stored at WIPP alongside waste generated from the current development and production of nuclear weapons components at National Nuclear Security Administration sites across the country.
“We’re absolutely a critical component in a variety of ways,” says Mark Bollinger, acting manager for the Carlsbad Field Office, which oversees WIPP. “From a site cleanup perspective, being able to safely manage and permanently dispose of transuranic waste allows the rest of the nuclear enterprise to continue its mission and not have waste stored at the generator sites.”
Bollinger says that every step of the process focuses on safety. First, WIPP employees oversee the packaging of waste containers at generator sites, such as Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore national laboratories. In preparation for transport, the waste is placed in special containers that have undergone numerous tests. “The containers go through 30-foot drop tests, get impaled on spikes, get submerged in water for several hours, and are put in fire for a period of time, all of which has to demonstrate that in all conditions the packaging is very secure and will not leak,” Bollinger says.
WIPP is also responsible for transportation of the containers from generator sites to the repository. “We have a very robust shipping and transportation program and that goes from the packaging, the waste loading into the containers, all the way through to the receipt at WIPP,” notes Bollinger. “Our drivers are among the finest in the country. There are very strict standards associated with them as employees.” Real-time satellite tracking of vehicles ensures the vehicles are monitored at all times, and the states and the communities they pass through receive training and technology to prepare for the unlikely event of a motor vehicle accident.
Located about 26 miles east of Carlsbad in a naturally occurring underground salt bed, WIPP has been operating for more than 20 years and can hold 6.2 million cubic feet of waste. In 2022, WIPP received 235 shipments from five generator sites. Since its opening in 1999, WIPP has received approximately 13,000 shipments that were safely transported more than 15 million cumulative miles. Los Alamos is the fourth-biggest shipper of transuranic waste to WIPP in the nation.
“We place the waste about a half a mile below the surface in the middle of a half-a-mile thick layer of salt,” Bollinger explains. “It is a very stable geological environment. Over time, the salt encloses the waste, sealing it in place and permanently isolating it from the environment.”
WIPP is the only waste repository of its kind in the United States. “One of the things that’s unique about WIPP is that the geological salt bed moves every day—something you don’t typically think about in a nuclear facility,” Bollinger says. “The intent is to have that salt move and encapsulate and isolate the waste from the environment. We have to work with mother nature while we work to keep the facility open and able to meet the nation’s needs.” Because of this, the WIPP staff includes geologists, seismologists, mining experts, hydrologists, electrical engineers, ventilation experts, and others.
Bollinger acknowledges that the facility’s one-of-a-kind nature means it has unique environmental regulations. Meeting these requirements is paramount, Bollinger says. “We are not just an asset to the nation, but to New Mexico, and we are interested in being good stewards to our community.” ★