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Does the WIPP Monster Mod Have a Bite?

On October 16, 2006, in Carlsbad, New Mexico, Governor Bill Richardson and Environment Secretary Ron Curry signed the negotiated changes in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) operating permit. The new permit requirements went into effect 30 days later, on November 16. 2006.

One of the new requirements is “waste confirmation” in which “the permittees” (Department of Energy–Carlsbad and Washington TRU Solutions) must check at least seven percent of the containers in a shipping container before the shipment leaves a site to ensure that no prohibited items are present. That procedure normally means that one of 14 drums in each TRUPACT-II is confirmed as being allowed at WIPP by an employee for permittees by reviewing (in virtually all cases) radiography tapes. A shipment without confirmation cannot be received at WIPP.

During the extensive negotiations on the “Monster Mod,” confirmation was described by a permitee representative as “the most boring job in the world,” because it was asserted that a mistake would never be found. Actual experience shows otherwise, along with providing further support that confirmation occur before the shipment leaves the generator site, rather than happening at WIPP, as the permittees had advocated.

On November 25, confirmation identified a prohibited item (an internal container that was not empty and had liquid higher than one inch). The container was in a shipment from the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). The shipment was cancelled and other provisions of the new permit went into effect. Among the provisions regarding such “noncompliant waste” is that all shipments from the same waste stream are suspended and cannot resume until the Corrective Action Report (CAR) is completed and provided to NMED. The CAR must describe why the error occurred and why and what changes were made, if any, to prevent recurrence. Additionally, INL must “thoroughly evaluate the potential impacts on waste that has been shipped to WIPP. The Permittees will evaluate the potential that any prohibited items were shipped to WIPP and what remedial actions” are required. The results of all the evaluations must be provided to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) before shipments from affected waste stream(s) resume.

The permit also provides that if a generator/storage site certifies noncompliant waste more than once during a “running 90-day period” that all shipments from the site are suspended until remedial actions are taken.

The noncomplaint waste was in a container from waste stream ID-RF-S5300-A. The combustible wastes were generated at the Rocky Flats Plant, generally in the 1970s and 1980s. The waste stream contains about 26,000 55-gallon drums, of which about 3,000 had been shipped to WIPP by the time of the suspension. Since it is known that the waste stream as generated included flammable solvents, it is essential that prohibited items, including liquids, not be in any containers shipped to WIPP. The waste stream information for the 26,000 drums states that no prohibited items are present, including no liquids.

New containers bound for WIPP designated to carry Remote Handled (RH) waste.

INL is the major shipping site to WIPP. During 2006, of the 1,150 shipments to WIPP, 800 were from INL. Shipping liquids has always been prohibited at WIPP. So the discovery of liquids clearly showed a major mistake by the predominant WIPP shipper. If additional problems are identified, resulting in suspending all INL shipments, there would be substantial impacts at INL and WIPP.

On December 12, the DOE Carlsbad Manager found the CAR and corrective actions to be acceptable. Thus, he announced that the suspension on shipments from the waste stream was lifted. The conclusion was that the Idaho radiography operator missed the liquids when he examined the drum in July 2006, but that he and other operators were properly trained, and there was no explanation other than human error and no identification of more fundamental problems at INL. The operator was suspended indefinitely. There were 193 containers from the waste stream that were reviewed (confirmation-like action), 34 at WIPP that were shipped from November 16 onward and another 159 containers still at INL which had been certified. The only noncomplaint waste was in the container previously identified.

NMED officials informed DOE that they were not satisfied that the “thorough evaluation” required by the permit had occurred, since the permittees arbitrarily limited the review to drums since the Monster Mod went into effect, while the ban on liquids as a prohibited item has always been in the permit. Further, no action had been taken to ensure that the approximately 2,950 containers from the waste stream already at WIPP were examined in any way. As a result, DOE agreed to consider what further evaluation would be done to more satisfactorily demonstrate that none of containers from the waste steam already at WIPP had prohibited items. In the meantime, the INL waste stream would not be shipped.

RH waste shipping container


Other issues of concern identified to NMED by Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) were that the CAR documentation did not provide any background on the number of containers with liquids from the waste stream that had previously been identified. It did not identify whether other problems with the waste stream had been identified prior to November 25. SRIC also supported clearly establishing that the new permit provisions will be properly applied in this case and any future instances.

Responding to NMED’s request for a more thorough evaluation of the INL waste stream containers already shipped to WIPP, the permittees conducted a confirmation-like review of 94 more drums at the site and found no “noncompliant waste.” They concluded that all the drums at WIPP complied with the permit. They also claimed that for the entire waste stream, “the results confirm, with a confidence level exceeding 96%, that the entire waste stream has less than a 1% miscertification rate.” On January 8, 2007, NMED accepted the results for those containers already at WIPP. It did not accept the claims regarding the remaining 23,000 containers, since there was no evidence to support the claims. Shipments from the INL waste stream could resume.

No violation of the WIPP permit apparently occurred, as confirmation worked to prohibit a shipment that would have included prohibited liquids. If prohibited items are determined to be at WIPP, that would be violation of the permit, and NMED would have been required to impose fines and penalties on the permittees.

The early “success” of confirmation is an encouraging sign that the requirement is being taken seriously by the permittees, who will hopefully continue to encourage workers to continue strict confirmation for all future shipments. The incident also will hopefully encourage renewed efforts at effective characterization at other sites, as the impacts of even one noncompliant waste container are substantial.


The major change that DOE wanted was permission to start shipping remote-handled (RH) waste, once new waste examination requirements are met. The first shipment of RH waste was shipped from INL and arrived at WIPP on January 23, after being delayed for days en route in Colorado because of bad weather. DOE hopes to have one or two RH waste shipments each week. RH waste will be emplaced in the walls of underground waste rooms, starting in room 6 of panel 4.

The new, first-in-the-nation public notification requirements are in place. Anyone interested in receiving updates about several actions allowed by the “Monster Mod,” can sign up on the WIPP website. Public notification is made of any generator site audit submissions to NMED, “surge storage capacity” for either contact-handled or RH waste, any request to exempt a particular waste stream from full waste characterization requirements, any permit modification that would increase the underground capacity, and any dispute resolution process with the permittees and NMED.

– Don Hancock

WIPP website:

NMED WIPP website:
SRIC website:

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“We, the Peoples gathered at the Indigenous World Uranium Summit, at this critical time of intensifying nuclear threats to Mother Earth and all life, demand a worldwide ban on uranium mining, processing, enrichment, fuel use, and weapons testing and deployment, and nuclear waste dumping on Native Lands.”

—Declaration of the Indigenous World Uranium Summit December 2, 2006

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