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DOE to limit radwaste operations.

DOE to limit radwaste operations

Water leaking into the United States' first underground repository for nuclear waste has forced the Department of Engergy (DOE) to limit its plans to place large amounts of waste into the facility starting in October.

Located near Carlsbad, N.M., the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) repository was scheduled during the next five years to accept 125,000 drums of plutonium-contaminated waste generated by the Defense Department's weapons program. But in response to recommendations last week from the National Academy of Sciences, DOE will temporarily fill only 3 percent of the repository -- 20,000 to 30,000 drums--as part of a series of tests on the water problem and other issues.

Until these tests can satisfy the questions of the Academy, the DOE will not continue loading the other 100,000 drums that are part of the pilot phase of the repository operation, says Wendell Weart of the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., who is in charge of the testing program at the repository. He believes the studies may be completed in as little as a year and a half.

"If we can in fact show that we have resolved these uncertainties in a year and a half and then proceed with the other waste, then it really isn't that major an impact," says Weart. "If we cannot gain the Academy's support in a year and half, then it would start to impact the waste proceedings."

Carved from salt beds about 2,000 feet below ground, the repository was designed so that the rooms of ductile salt would slowly collapse and encapsulate the waste during the next hundred years. It has become apparent in the last three years that the salt beds are more saturated with water than had originally been assumed. Most of the moisture presently seeping into the repository is removed by ventilation systems before the water accumulates on the floor.

Recently, a state commission and an independent scientific panel voiced concern that after the repository is sealed, water might begin to fill the rooms before they have collapsed completely. If the chambers close too slowly, water might dissolve the steel drums and turn the waste into a mobile radioactive slurry that could potentially reach the surface (SN: 1/23/88, p.54). Until now, however, DOE has denied that the water problem necessitated any change in scheduling.

Aside from addressing the water issue, government tests will measure the amount of gas generated from the decomposition of the waste, which is mostly contaminated trash. Gas from the waste may slow the collapse of the salt walls.
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Title Annotation:Department of Energy, Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
Author:Monasterksy, Richard
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 19, 1988
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