A new air circulation shaft at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has been sunk 116 feet from its total depth in the underground nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad.
The project was expected to be completed in 2019 this year as a $75 million construction contract was awarded that year, but the project was delayed for about a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rising COVID-19 infections led the New Mexico Department of Environment (NMED) to deny renewal of a temporary permit for work prior to regulatory approval for use of the well.
This approval was obtained in October 2021 through a Permit Amendment Request (PMR) which allowed the resumption of the project and the use of the well once the work was completed.
It will act as an air intake to increase airflow into the WIPP basement for workers, and in conjunction with an ongoing reconstruction of the site’s ventilation system, known as the containment ventilation system Safety Significance (SSCVS), could increase the air available for workers to breathe from 170,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm) to 540,000 cfm.
The SSCVS was to be completed by 2025, and the additional air would allow waste extraction, maintenance, and emplacement to occur simultaneously to help WIPP pursue its disposal goals while preparing for the facility to accept more waste.
The latest for the shaft was the lowering of a platform allowing workers to continue shaping and extending the shaft to greater depths.
Weighing 101,000 pounds, the Galloway stands four stories tall and will allow workers to complete blasting and excavation operations in the coming months until the shaft reaches a final depth of 2,150 feet.
Then, a mining machine will start digging galleries to connect the shaft to the rest of the WIPP underground.
“It’s really great to see work resume on the service well,” said Janelle Armijo, Federal Project Manager for the well and SSCVS at the US Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office. “This is another step forward to ensure we have the infrastructure in place to support WIPP disposal operations for years to come.”
Above the shaft, workers will add a metal frame that will connect to the Galloway using a series of cables and pulleys to bring rubble to the surface as work continues.
After the shaft is completed, mining will begin on Panels 11 and 12 where nuclear waste will be disposed of, replacing space lost to contamination during a 2014 accidental radiological release.
The new panels will be on the west side of the basement near the shaft and will be connected by five galleries linking the area to the existing mine.
The other component of the WIPP’s ventilation reconstruction, the SSCVS, has also recently progressed.
Contractor The Industrial Company has announced the completion of a salt reduction building. The 25,000 square foot building will pre-filter air drawn into the system using water misters and other equipment to extract salt from the air before it is pumped for further filtration into the filter building of the SSCVS.
In this building, the air will circulate through high-efficiency particulate filters (HEPA) and will be exhausted through an exhaust stack.
The new filter building was to be completed this year.
“Our contractor is making great progress on the new permanent ventilation system,” said Reinhard Knerr, director of CBFO. “Anyone who walks past the WIPP site can see how the skyline is changing in a positive way that will support future WIPP operations.”
But the service and ventilation shaft projects have drawn controversy from government watchdog groups who have argued the project is part of a larger effort to extend the life of the WIPP side beyond the date of 2024 closure mandated in current site permit with NMED.
That could mean an indefinite delay in burying nuclear waste in New Mexico, critics worry.
Cynthia Weehler, of the Santa Fe-based activist group 285 All, said in public comments submitted to NMED that the DOE should publicly present its full “expansion” plan rather than individual projects toward such a goal.
“The DOE’s expansion plan violates existing limits on WIPP set out in federal law, state agreements, the WIPP permit, and the DOE’s decades-old social contract with New Mexicans,” it said. she writes. The DOE did not present the entire plan to the public and to New Mexico officials.
“Instead, the DOE is only providing the new well piece of the plan, saying other elements of the plan will be presented in the future. I object to this piecemeal process.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.