WIPP: Full air filtration mode a ‘conservative decision’ to protect environment, workers via Carlsbad Current Argus

Air in the underground facility of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant continues to be heavily filtered to prevent radioactive particles from reaching the outside air, despite research that suggests it is not longer needed.

Filtration reduces the amount of work that can be done in the underground nuclear waste repository – now emplacing waste and mining simultaneously – about 2,000 feet underground.

The filtration is used to ensure air released by WIPP is not contaminated, after a drum of transuranic waste ruptured in portions of the facility in 2014 and released radiation into the outside air, resulting in the facility’s closure for three years.
Most of the contamination has been cleaned up by their decontamination efforts,” Hardy said. “If they were to resume unfiltered release, they would be below the EPA’s (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) requirements for a nuclear facility.”

Although Hardy contended it could be safe to release the air into the environment, he said filtration also protects workers operating in contaminated areas.
Increasing ventilation capacity is a principal requirement in the reopening and resumption of waste disposal operations at WIPP,” read the paper. “The installation of additional (and) new ventilation systems in several stages is planned to enable WIPP underground operations to return to full operation capacity such as those that existed prior to the underground radiation event.”

But Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center said he doesn’t envision WIPP could ever operate without filtering its air.
“There’s no upside, and the downside is there is still contamination in there. You need filtration for that,” Hancock said. “The lack of ventilation clearly slows them down some, but they (the DOE) themselves say they have room in Panel 7 until 2021. So what’s the point?”

He said the contamination in Panel 7 will continue to put workers and the outside environment at risk for the foreseeable future, and that the facility is several years from sealing the panel.

Worker safety, he said, should be a higher priority than increasing emplacements.

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