TRU PAC Loading, SRS WIPP Waste (copy) (copy)

Savannah River Site officials work with the U.S. Department of Energy's Carlsbad Field Office to complete transuranic waste shipments.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The U.S. Department of Energy's second-in-command for nuclear cleanup on Wednesday described the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico as a remediation "lynchpin," specifically mentioning dilute-and-dispose, a plutonium disposition strategy meant to replace the nixed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility.

WIPP, a geologic repository similar to a deep salt mine, has for years accepted the nation's transuranic waste – tools, clothing and other debris contaminated by radioactive elements. The facility, the concept of which dates back decades, in June accepted its 12,500th transuranic waste shipment.

Keith Klein, a former manager of the Energy Department's Carlsbad Field Office, on Wednesday described WIPP as a facility with unique capabilities playing a critical role. Both Klein and DOE Office of Environmental Management No. 2 Todd Shrader were speakers at the 2019 National Cleanup Workshop.

The Savannah River Site sent more than 1,650 shipments to WIPP through 2014, before the repository suspended work following several accidents. A handful more were made since WIPP reopened in 2017, and another batch of waste is expected to leave SRS later this year, site deputy manager Thomas Johnson Jr. said in July.

Savannah River Site manager Michael Budney has previously described ridding the site of transuranic waste as an "important mission."

Dilute-and-dispose, favored by U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, also hinges on WIPP. As currently planned, the disposition method involves mixing metric tons of plutonium with inert material for long-term storage there.

The cross-country effort, though, could face funding fluctuations, programming changes and public perception woes, among other hurdles, according to an interim report handled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. That analysis – "Disposal of Surplus Plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant" – was published last year.

"The process, if implemented, would involve a large number of sites, organizations and stakeholders," the report reads. 

Gordon-Hagerty in a mid-June interview with the Aiken Standard maintained that dilute-and-dispose was cheaper, more efficient and overall better than MOX, the controversial and never-completed project at SRS born from an international accord.

MOX was designed to transform surplus weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel. The dilute-and-dispose process is less complex than the construction of the MOX fuel option, the 2018 interim report noted.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin