Idaho resumes radioactive waste shipments to New Mexico

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Shipments of nuclear waste from the U.S. Department of Energy’s site in eastern Idaho to a nuclear waste repository in New Mexico have resumed following three episodes that caused New Mexico officials to suspend them.

An Energy Department official told Idaho officials Wednesday that the New Mexico Environment Department last week gave the OK for shipments from the 890-square-mile (2,300-square-kilometer) site that includes the Idaho National Laboratory to resume to the department’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

The New Mexico agency suspended the shipments Sept. 14 following problems with three shipments. Officials said a drum leaking liquid in April caused a partial evacuation at the plant, but no contamination was reported. That was followed in July by another drum with a corrosion-like substance that escaped from the bottom, and in August by a shipment that appeared to have droplets on top.

Connie Flohr, manager of the Idaho Cleanup Project for the Energy Department’s Office of Environmental Management, told Idaho officials during a Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission meeting that additional steps are being taken to make sure the shipments don’t leak or rupture.

“We’ve got to make sure that what we’re sending down there is safe,” she said. “Obviously, it doesn’t do any good for any of us to send shipments down that have to be turned back. It’s embarrassing for us, it’s costly, it wastes time, and it doesn’t help Carlsbad maintain their capacity of emplacement.”

The commission makes recommendations to the governor regarding policies to support the viability and mission of the Idaho National Laboratory and other nuclear industries in the state. Commission members, appointed by the governor, include state lawmakers, local government elected officials, university officials and others.

The lab, one of 17 Energy Department national labs, is the nation’s top advanced nuclear energy research lab and is one of the state’s largest employers, with about 5,000 workers. It’s a huge economic driver in the state, especially in eastern Idaho, bringing in millions of federal research dollars.

But the lab has a legacy of nuclear waste that the Energy Department is cleaning up. That includes about 40,000 barrels of transuranic waste composed of work clothing, rags, machine parts and tools contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements. Some barrels contain Cold War weapons waste generated at the former Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado that produced nuclear weapons.

The waste was exhumed, compressed and put into barrels for shipment. Some barrels weigh 700 to 1,100 pounds (320 to 500 kilograms). But some of the barrels have been sitting for more than five years in a facility without heat or air conditioning. Flohr said that aging appeared to cause problems with the integrity of some of the barrels.

Ty Blackford, of the Idaho Environmental Coalition — the Energy Department contractor that manages cleanup operations at the Idaho National Laboratory site — said the protective cases used to ship the barrels worked to protect people and the environment from contamination. Workers are examining one of the failed barrels, he said.

“The drum looked good when it left (Idaho),” he said during the meeting. “But somewhere between here and there, bouncing down the road for 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers), something went wrong. So, we need to understand that in detail.”

The Energy Department is required to remove the waste from Idaho following a 1995 agreement that was the culmination of a series of federal lawsuits. That agreement is viewed as preventing the Energy Department from converting the eastern Idaho site in high-desert sagebrush steppe to a high-level nuclear waste repository. The site sits above the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, which supplies water to cities and farms in the region.

Flohr said the Energy Department could finish shipping the transuranic waste out of Idaho by late 2026 or early 2027. Other types of nuclear waste, including radioactive liquid waste, are also stored at the site.

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This story has been corrected to show the meeting occurred Wednesday, not Tuesday.

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