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For Immediate Release March 26, 1999
Media Contact: Bill Taylor   (803) 725-2889

 

World's First Underground Waste Repository Begins Operations
First Shipment of Transuranic Radioactive Waste Arrives at WIPP

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CARLSBAD, N.M. (March 26,1999) -- Energy Secretary Bill Richardson today announced that the first shipment of defense-generated transuranic radioactive waste arrived safely at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). Hundreds of people were on hand to watch this important milestone in the Energy Department's work to permanently dispose of defense-generated transuranic waste left from the research and production of nuclear weapons.

The shipment from the DOE's Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), in New Mexico, arrived at WIPP at approximately 4 a.m. (MST) this morning. LANL is one more than 20 DOE sites nationwide where transuranic waste is temporarily stored.

"This is truly a historic moment -- for the Department of Energy and the nation," said Secretary Richardson. "This shipment to WIPP represents the beginning of fulfilling the long-overdue promise to all Americans to safely clean up the nation's Cold War legacy of nuclear waste and protect the generations to come."

The first waste shipment left LANL at 7:49 p.m. Thursday evening. The truck went around Santa Fe via a relief route built with funds from the DOE. The shipment then traveled south on US 285 to Carlsbad, NM. From Carlsbad, the truck headed east on US 62/180 to the WIPP site.

Waste handling technicians will begin unloading the first of an estimated 17 shipments of transuranic waste that DOE will send from LANL to the WIPP.

Transuranic waste - clothing, tools, rags, debris, residues, and other disposable items contaminated with radioactive elements, mostly plutonium -- began accumulating in the 1940s with the beginning of the nation's nuclear weapons program. A byproduct of the nuclear weapons production, this waste remains radioactive for thousands of years.

The Savannah River Site (SRS) anticipates shipping more than 25,000 waste drums in addition to the WIPP Standard Waste Boxes to Carlsbad. SRS expects to begin shipping transuranic waste to WIPP in early 2000, once the site has achieved the necessary certification.

"This is an essential milestone for the Department of Energy and the Savannah River Site," said Greg Rudy, Savannah River Site's DOE Manager. "Being able to ship waste to WIPP is vital to our long-range environmental clean up plans."

As early as the 1950s, the National Academy of Sciences recommended disposal of radioactive waste in stable geologic formations, such as deep salt beds. Government scientists searched for an appropriate site during the 1960s, testing the area of southeastern New Mexico in the 1970s. Congress authorized construction of the WIPP in 1979. DOE completed construction of the facility in the late 1980s.

Originally scheduled to begin receiving waste in 1988, the WIPP's opening was delayed because of several lawsuits and the lack of a specific regulatory framework. That changed in 1992 when Congress named the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the WIPP's primary regulator.

The EPA certified in May 1998 that the WIPP meets all applicable federal standards for disposal of transuranic waste.

The WIPP, a cornerstone of the DOE's cleanup effort, is the world's first underground repository to permanently dispose of defense-generated transuranic waste left from the research and production of nuclear weapons.

Located in southeastern New Mexico, 26 miles east of Carlsbad, project facilities include disposal rooms excavated in an ancient, stable salt formation 2,150 feet underground.

-DOE-

SR-99-04

 

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