Idaho resumes radioactive waste shipments to New Mexico

Shipments of nuclear waste from eastern Idaho resumed after three episodes that led New Mexico officials to suspend them in September.

BOISE, Idaho — Shipments of nuclear waste from the U.S. Department of Energy site in eastern Idaho to a nuclear waste repository in New Mexico have resumed after three episodes that prompted New Mexico officials to suspend them.

An Energy Department official told Idaho officials Wednesday that the New Mexico Department of Environment gave approval last week for shipments from the 890 square mile (2,300 square kilometer) site. which includes the Idaho National Laboratory to take over the department’s waste isolation pilot project. Factory near Carlsbad.

The New Mexico agency suspended shipments Sept. 14 following issues with three shipments. Officials said a liquid leak from a drum in April caused a partial evacuation of the plant, but no contamination was reported. This was followed in July by another drum containing a corrosion-like substance that escaped from the bottom, and in August by a shipment that appeared to have droplets on top.

Connie Flohr, manager of the Idaho cleanup project for the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management, told Idaho officials during a meeting of the Commission on Leadership in the nuclear energy that extra measures were taken to ensure that the shipments did not leak or rupture.

“We have to make sure that what we send there is safe,” she said. “Obviously, there’s no point for any of us to send cargo that needs to be returned. It’s embarrassing for us, it’s expensive, it wastes time and it doesn’t help Carlsbad maintain its placement capacity. »

The commission makes recommendations to the governor regarding policies to support the viability and mission of the Idaho National Laboratory and other nuclear industries in the state. Members of the commission, appointed by the governor, include state legislators, local government officials, university officials and others.

The lab, one of 17 National Laboratories of the Department of Energy, is the nation’s first advanced nuclear energy research laboratory and one of the largest employers in the state, with approximately 5,000 workers. It’s a huge economic engine in the state, especially in eastern Idaho, bringing in millions of federal research dollars.

But the lab has a legacy of nuclear waste that the Department of Energy is cleaning up. This includes approximately 40,000 barrels of transuranic waste consisting of work clothes, rags, machine parts and tools contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements. Some barrels contain Cold War weapons waste generated at the former Rocky Flats plant in Colorado that produced nuclear weapons.

The waste was exhumed, compressed and put into drums for shipment. Some barrels weigh 700 to 1,100 pounds (320 to 500 kilograms). But some of the barrels sat for more than five years in a facility with no heating or air conditioning. Flohr said the aging seemed to cause some barrel integrity issues.

Ty Blackford of the Idaho Environmental Coalition — the Department of Energy contractor managing cleanup operations at the Idaho National Laboratory site — said the protective cases used to ship the barrels helped to protect people and the environment from contamination. Workers examine one of the defective barrels, he said.

“The drum looked good when it left (Idaho),” he said at the reunion. “But somewhere between here and there, bouncing down the road for 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers), something went wrong. So we have to understand that in detail.

The Department of Energy is required to dispose of Idaho’s waste following a 1995 agreement that was the culmination of a series of federal lawsuits. The agreement is seen as preventing the Department of Energy from converting the eastern Idaho site in the high desert sagebrush steppe into a repository for high-level nuclear waste. The site sits above the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, which supplies water to towns and farms in the area.

Flohr said the Energy Department could complete shipping transuranic waste out of Idaho by late 2026 or early 2027. Other types of nuclear waste, including radioactive liquid waste, are also stored on the site.

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