Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

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Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Developing a safe and reliable method for disposing of radioactive wastes is one of the chief obstacles to broader applications of nuclear power . Nearly a half century after the world's first nuclear reactor was opened, the United States still had no permanent method for the isolation and storage of wastes that may remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. Scientific disputes, technical problems, and political controversies have slowed the pace at which waste disposal systems can be studied and built. The history of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), located near Carlsbad, New Mexico, is an example of how difficult the solution to this challenge can be.

WIPP was designed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in the 1970s to test methods for isolating and storing low- and intermediate-level and transuranic radioactive wastes. (Transuranic wastes are produced mainly by nuclear weapons plants and consist of clothing, debris, tools, and other disposable items that have been contaminated with radioactive wastes.) Researchers decided that the most promising disposal system was to seal the wastes in steel containers and bury these in deep caves built into natural salt beds. They knew that salt beds could absorb the heat produced by radioactive waste , and that the beds were usually located in earthquake-free zones. In addition, salt bed caves were attractive because scientists believed they were dry, which prevented wastes from leaching out of their tanks. Salt would also tend to creep into openings, thus sealing the drums for thousands of years.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, the DOE spent more than $1 billion building huge caves 2,100 ft (640 m) underground near Carlsbad. The plan was to bury 800,000 drums of nuclear waste and study its behavior over a number of years. It was soon discovered, however, that some salt beds contain layers of brine (salt water), indicating that such beds are not always dry. Salt in the caves has begun to "creep," or slowly move, as expected. Concern about the possible damages caused by the storage of radioactive materials became so intense that today the WIPP is regulated as carefully as a nuclear power plant, providing regular reports to 28 different governmental agencies.

Controversy created a standstill at WIPP and prevented waste drums from being buried there for over two decades. In 1991 Secretary of Energy James Watkins announced that the DOE could wait no longer, and wastes that had been stored at 10 sites around the nation for 20 years awaiting disposal were to be shipped to WIPP. Environmentalists and some government officials in New Mexico reacted strongly to the announcement. They pointed out that Congress was required to give specific approval before any wastes could actually be buried at WIPP. A federal judge ruled that Watkins could not carry out his plan until Congress acted, and the experimental tests at WIPP were once again put on hold.

In the late 1990s, after much deliberation and further testing, Congress approved WIPP for nuclear waste storage. The facility received its first shipment of waste on March 26, 1999. Under congressional mandate, WIPP will only receive transuranic waste and no commercial or high-level nuclear waste. In 2000, more than 99% of existing U.S. transuranic waste was being temporarily stored in drums on nuclear defense sites at 23 locations, including ones in California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Washington. At first, the DOE authorized WIPP to only receive waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, and from Rocky Flats, a former nuclear weapons plant near Denver, Colorado. By 2002 the facility had begun receiving waste from other areas, including South Carolina's Savannah River Site .

On April 6, 2002, WIPP received its first shipment of waste under the Central Characterization Project (CCP) from the Savannah River Site. CCP is a program designed to make the cleanup of transuranic wastes more efficient, safe, and cost-effective. Characterization involves using a mobile loading system to check and approve drums of waste before loading them into specialized shipping containers for transfer to WIPP.

WIPP is projected to house up to 46.7 million gal (177 million l) of transuranic waste, which will remain radioactive for more than 10,000 years. By 2008, the number of shipments is estimated to grow to nearly 1,400 per year, declining again as the facility fills up. By 2035 the facility is projected to have received almost 37,000 truckloads of nuclear waste, barring operational or legal changes. Shipments are moved only in good weather and at night, when traffic is lighter to avoid accidents, and routed around major cities. Shipments are tracked by satellite for safety.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, about 61 million Americans lived within 50 mi (80 km) of a military nuclear waste storage site. By the time WIPP has been in operation for 10 years, that number is projected to drop to four million. By May 2002, a total of 814 shipments had been sent to the storage facility, totaling 23,852 containers.

[David E. Newton and Douglas Dupler ]



Gerrard, Michael B. Fairness in Toxic and Nuclear Waste Siting. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Rahm, Dianne, ed. Toxic Waste and Environmental Policy in the Twenty-first Century United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2002.

Shrader-Frechette, K. S. Burying Uncertainty: Risk and the Case Against Geological Disposal of Nuclear Waste. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Streissguth, Thomas, ed. Nuclear and Toxic Waste. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2001.


"WIPP Receives Waste Characterized With Mobile System." DOE News April 12, 2002 [cited July 6, 2002]. <http://www.wipp.carlsbad.nm.us/pr/2002/WIPPReceivesCCPMobile.pdf>.


Department of Energy, Carlsbad Field Office, PO Box 3090, Carlsbad, NM 88221, (505) 234-7352, <http://www.wipp.carlsbad.nm.us>