Whether your world had a biblical beginning or from some far, far away place in another galaxy, there had to be that very first atom that started it all. I don’t have an answer for that any more than I can determine if an atom is male or female. But here’s what I do know. In nuclear physics, decay product is the remaining nuclide left over from radioactive decay and is known as a daughter product, daughter isotope or daughter nuclide. Decay products are important in understanding radioactive decay and the management of radioactive waste. This brings us to the topic of today’s article: Nuclear Waste and the Reopening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project – WIPP.
First, I would like to state that WIPP is no longer a ‘pilot’ project but a full functioning nuclear waste facility. For the past 15 years, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) WIPP facility has safely disposed of the nation’s defense related transuranic (TRU) radioactive waste. During that time, 22 DOE generator sites of legacy TRU waste have been cleaned up. From these sites, TRU waste consists of radioactive contaminated clothing, tools, etc. It is disposed of in underground waste disposal rooms carved out of a 250-million-year-old salt formation 2,159 feet below the surface.
WIPP began operations in March 1999, 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, NM. WIPP is the only federal repository for the nation’s TRU waste and employs over a 1000 people, which includes employees supporting waste characterization and packaging activities at the generator sites, places like Los Alamos (LANL) or Oak Ridge (ORNL). The first site that was completely cleaned up was just up the road at Rocky Flats, CO, an area that use to be a plutonium nuclear warhead factory and has been completely turned over to a nature preserve, flourishing with tall prairie grasses and lots of critters. This cleanup would never have happened if there were no WIPP.
Then on 2/14/2014, Valentines Day, the unexpected happened. One of the recent waste barrels shipped down from LANL developed a chemical combustion and popped its lid releasing two potentially dangerous radionuclide; plutonium-239 and americium-241. I say minor because the radiation level that was release into the atmosphere was less than any of the area hospital ER rooms with CT scanners. AM-241 is used commercially in many different sensing devices like smoke detectors, medical diagnostic equipment and also for other nondestructive testing of machinery and gauges for measuring the thickness of glass and other products. The radiation released was from the clothing and tools stored in the barrels that were used to handle Am-241 in nuclear warhead production plants.
However, on 2/15/2014, the day after, you would have thought the world was doomed or at least New Mexico was devastated with a large plume of radioactivity hanging over it. The only plume from this leak was all the wild accusations that the culture of fear managed to spread before any facts were even known. If you were to search the internet today, you will find many articles and blogs that pretty much describe an apocalypse. Well, we’re still here and on one died.
The Energy Department currently estimates the cost of restoring WIPP to full operations at $500 million, with a target of resuming some waste disposal by early 2016. It could be several more years before it is fully opened and it will be opened again because there are still ~310,000 55-gallon drums awaiting shipment to WIPP. That doesn’t leave any room for non-military waste such as unused uranium fuel rods from the 100+ commercial power plants. That waste needs to be consumed as fuel by molten salt reactors and not buried at WIPP or Yucca Mountain, the topic of next week’s article.
Bonus video – Why we should not fear radiation: https://vimeo.com/97112852