Analysis: WIPP Is No Safe Haven For Nuclear Materials

We were interested to have recently acquired a pile of background information regarding one of the most intriguing “open secrets” in the USA. WIPP stands for “Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” and is an underground repository located in Carlsbad, New Mexico, that has been operational since 1999. WIPP is an open secret much like the fact that much of the world’s large computer networks are protected by Mossad technology (Checkpoint Firewall-1), and that Osama Bin Laden is dead. People know it’s there, and the US government are quite open about its presence and how it is constructed, yet like Doctor Who’s Perception Filter, people choose not to acknowledge something potentially so hazardous; something that could irradiate drinking water for thousands of years; something that will be a source of fissile materials long after the American Empire has collapsed.

The reason EnviroLeaks is publishing information that is already in the public domain – or at least archived from the public domain – is in order to switch off this “Perception Filter”. Just because something isn’t classified doesn’t mean it is available: in order to get a full picture of the WIPP facility one has to collate a great deal of information from various sources. That’s what we aim to do in this analysis. As an introduction, we recommend watching the following video in order to provide relevant background information – and perhaps a bit of a surprise:

0800034 – Project Gnome – 1961 – 29:13 – Color – Project GNOME was part of Operation Nougat. The 3-kiloton GNOME test was detonated 1200 feet underground in a salt bed formation on December 10, 1961, near Carlsbad, New Mexico.

GNOME was the first nuclear test in the Plowshare Program. The Plowshare Program objectives were to determine how energy produced from nuclear explosions could be used for peaceful or civilian purposes. The Vela Uniform Program studied seismic detection, identification, and location of nuclear explosions. Studies were conducted underground with ground-based instruments for detecting explosions in outer space and with established satellite-based instruments for detecting explosions in outer space.

Although GNOME was a Plowshare test, the Vela Uniform objective was to determine how the signals and effects of a 3-kiloton device detonated underground in salt beds differed from the outputs of detonations of different yields in other geologic formations such as tuff and granite. Scientists also wanted to compare the seismic signals from underground tests with that of earthquakes.

This video contains footage different from that shown in video number 0800028, and includes an introduction by Dr. Edward Teller, one of the few times he was captured on film. Several long-range and close-up views of surface effects from the detonation are shown as well as people reentering the detonation cavity approximately 6 months after the test when the underground cavity was opened to both official observers and members of the press. No other Operation Nougat footage is shown in this video.

The relevance of this video, and the record of underground nuclear testing at Carlsbad is made much clearer when you consider the amount of other activity taking place in the Carlsbad area, in close proximity to the WIPP facility. As well as the legacy of underground blast caverns, there are numerous active and abandoned mines for various minerals, a vast number of abandoned drill sites the dimensions of which may or may not be recorded in detail, a host of high pressure water injection points for increasing the availability of oil, and hundreds of oil and gas wells, many of which are within a stone’s throw of WIPP. Some of the facilities are detailed in the Google Earth images below (click to enlarge).

Thanks to people like spotter2 we have available other maps and diagrams, created for the purposes of transparency, that accompany the many academic papers and government documents that paint nothing but a rosy picture of the future of WIPP. Yet there are two glaring problems here: first, consider just the complexity of the intrusions and caverns in the images above, then augment that with the diagram below of the oil and gas wells within just a couple of square miles:

This diagram is from a 1997 Department of Energy document entitled, “Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Disposal Phase
Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement”. Feel free to read it – it’s huge and rich with detail about the facility and the geological environment, although it is an official public document. One thing that stands out with reference to oil and gas is the description of a situation that seems out of control:

According to a study of comprehensive well records for nine townships around the WIPP site (Broadhead et al. 1995), 532 wells had been drilled in search of oil and gas by the end of 1993. Few wells had been drilled in the area prior to 1960. Between 1960 and 1989, drilling activity increased but was sporadic and never exceeded 20 wells per year. Since 1990, however, drilling has increased markedly, with annual totals increasing to a maximum of 140 wells in 1993. This increase has been partially attributable to the opening of previously restricted areas of the Potash Area to drilling. Most of these wells were drilled into the Brushy Canyon Formation of the Delaware Mountain Group.

Three commercial wells have been drilled for oil and gas within the boundaries of the WIPP Land Withdrawal Area. Two vertical wells were drilled within the area during the 1970s; neither one became a producing well. A third well was drilled in 1982 from a location outside of the WIPP Land Withdrawal Area. The well was drilled at an angle underneath the area to intercept gas in the Atoka Formation and is currently commercially productive.

The point is that not only is there great complexity in the WIPP area, but there is also a high level of activity: oil and gas drilling, salt injection, underground mining – which inevitably involves an element of blasting and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”. Fracking is controversial because the charges that are used have been found to create channels through which drinking water can become contaminated with other substances, some of which are toxic, some of which may be corrosive. we know hydraulic fracturing is taking place in the vicinity of WIPP, simply by viewing job advertisements, such as this one:

Required Qualifications: 5+ years directly related experience Strong knowledge of and commitment to applicable Health Environmental & Safety (HES) practices Demonstrated ability and experience to coordinate and supervise well servicing activities Demonstrated project management skills and experience in planning, scheduling, organizing and supervising well servicing equipment Experience in repair of ESP, beam, flowing, injection, and disposal wells Knowledgeable of best practices in well pulling, well repair and stimulation Experience in performing root cause failure analysis and working economic evaluations Knowledgeable of chemical treatment options and familiarity with downhole pump and equipment products and associated applications Experience in remedial cementing, hydraulic fracturing, and acid work

The second glaring problem is that the ground around WIPP is either insufficiently stable for such a facility or is being destabilised by the activity around it. In 2008 a 300ft wide sinkhole opened up near to Artesia, New Mexico, right above a salt water injection point. The sinkhole (image here) lies just 30 miles from WIPP. There are fears of similar occurences occuring in Carlsbad and, judging by the predominant geology in the area, collapses could occur anywhere indicated by the brine injection points in the image further up.

So, what is being stored at WIPP? It is classified as a Transuranic (TRU) Waste Disposal Facility, transuranic waste being: “material that is contaminated with U-233 (and its daughter products), certain isotopes of plutonium, and nuclides with atomic numbers greater than 92 (uranium). It is produced during the reprocessing of spent fuel to separate plutonium for use in fabrication of nuclear weapons.” It is, nominally, not highly radiactive, although has the potential to contain dangerous isotopes of long half-life, thus requiring secure storage facilities. The Hazardous Waste Permit dated 1 April, 2010 details what is permitted to be stored at WIPP:

Waste destined for WIPP are, or were, produced as a byproduct of weapons production and have been identified in terms of waste streams based on the processes that produced them. Each waste stream identified by generators is assigned to a Waste Summary Category to facilitate RCRA waste characterization, and reflect the final waste forms acceptable for WIPP disposal.

These Waste Summary Categories are:

S3000—Homogeneous Solids

Solid process residues defined as solid materials, excluding soil, that do not meet the applicable regulatory criteria for classification as debris (20.4.1.800 NMAC (incorporating 40 CFR §268.2[g] and [h])). Included in solid process residues are inorganic process residues, inorganic sludges, salt waste, and pyrochemical salt waste. Other waste streams are included in this Waste Summary Category based on the specific waste stream types and final waste form. This category includes wastes that are at least 50 percent by volume solid process residues.

S4000—Soils/Gravel

This waste summary category includes waste streams that are at least 50 percent by volume soil. Soils are further categorized by the amount of debris included in the matrix.

S5000—Debris Wastes

This waste summary category includes waste that is at least 50 percent by volume materials that meet the criteria for classification as debris (20.4.1.800 NMAC (incorporating 40 CFR §268.2)). Debris is a material for which a specific treatment is not provided by 20.4.1.800 NMAC (incorporating 40 CFR §268 Subpart D), including process residuals such as smelter slag from the treatment of wastewater, sludges or emission residues.

Debris means solid material exceeding a 2.36 inch (60 millimeter) particle size that is intended for disposal and that is: 1) a manufactured object, 2) plant or animal matter, or 3) natural geologic material.

Included in the S5000 Waste Summary Category are metal debris, lead containing metal debris, inorganic nonmetal debris, asbestos debris, combustible debris, graphite debris, heterogeneous debris, and composite filters, as well as other minor waste streams. Particles smaller than 2.36 inches in size may be considered debris if the debris is a manufactured object and if it is not a particle of S3000 or S4000 material.

Examples of waste that might be included in the S5000 Waste Summary Category are asbestos-containing gloves, fire hoses, aprons, flooring tiles, pipe insulation, boiler jackets, and laboratory tabletops. Also included are combustible debris constructed of plastic, rubber, wood, paper, cloth, graphite, and biological materials. Examples of graphite waste that would be included are crucibles, graphite components, and pure graphite.

This is clearly not directly fissile material, although there are enough plutonium isotopes in any one load to make a fair “dirty bomb” should someone desire that. Certainly it’s not the kind of material that one would like to get too near to, and especially not breathe in or ingest. That is why it has to be locked away. That is why an indicator that would be valid for 10,000 years is being created (this is a fascinating, and rather odd paper describing the need for and likely form of such an indicator).

WIPP is constructed of a large number of “rooms” mined out of saturated salt beds. Once a room is filled then it is sealed off. When a level is filled then that level is sealed off until – in approximately 2070 – the entire facility is full and is finally sealed permanently. Well, that’s the theory. There is a particularly interesting paper that rather cracks that theory open. This paper, produced by Dr David Snow of the University of California at Berkeley,discusses the possibility of accidental exposure of solid materials:

Because human intrusion is a potential cause of repository breaching during any 10,000-year regulatory period, one of the tenets of radwaste disposal is that a candidate environment should be free of valuable natural resources that could stimulate future explorations. Since the LWA [restricted area] is underlain by exploitable potash beds in the McNutt interval and is surrounded by oil and gas wells, the scenarios of one or more inadvertent interceptions of the waste rooms by future drill holes are very credible.

Which leaves us in the hands of whatever company might decide to mine or bore for materials in the future or, presumably, whatever agency decides to purposely access radioactive materials for political gain. Snow addresses the in situ storage of the radioactive waste best in the paper’s summary:

At WIPP, radioactive waste is being disposed of permanently in drums and boxes placed in rooms excavated in the Salado salt beds. Like all other excavations below the water table, the repository will saturate, and dissolved radioactivity can ultimately escape via boreholes, shafts or fractures to the overlying Rustler evaporites. The most evident aquifer in the Rustler, the Culebra dolomite, is claimed by DOE to provide such slow transport that the Rustler can be considered an adequate barrier to waste migration. But performance assessment modeling, based on insufficient exploration data, unsupportable deductions and faulty assumptions led to that claim. This paper asserts that the Rustler formation overlying and down-gradient of the WIPP repository will not provide the claimed geologic containment because karst conduits are present that will facilitate rapid, ephemeral flow. If disposal is not halted and timely rectified, escaping radioactivity may reach Nash Draw within a thousand years, contaminating the Pecos River and Rio Grande.

In essence, if water manages to penetrate whatever protection the materials are being afforded, then radioactive isotopes can be carried away to be deposited in one of the many aquifers that serve the drinking and agricultural water needs of New Mexico. As for the protection around the materials themselves, that consists of ordinary steel drums, suitable for storage in non-oxidising environments, but not suitable for any environment that would result in corrosion. As a paper written for the Sandia Laboratories – a government owned facility – states:

If potential brine intrusion and sorption on the backfill material occurs in the long-term (post-repository operations phase), corrosion of the mild steel drums will certainly occur. Moisture contact with the CH TKU waste materials (and subsequent waste leaching) can occur only after the drums, as well as the internal polyethylene drum liners, are eventually breached, either by corrosion or mechanical crushing pressures. The waste drums were never intended to be a long-term corrosion or physical barrier.

This material is meant to be kept safe for 10,000 years. Something is not right in the state of New Mexico.

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2 Responses to Analysis: WIPP Is No Safe Haven For Nuclear Materials

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Analysis: WIPP Is No Safe Haven For Nuclear Materials « EnviroLeaks -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: atomic bomb effects - atomic energy commission, plowshare program

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