Planning for DOE Transuranic Waste Shipments from The Nevada Test Site to The Waste Isolation Processing Plant


The U.S. Department of Energy [DOE] is currently planning shipments of transuranic [TRU] waste from the Nevada Test Site [NTS] to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant [WIPP] near Carlsbad, New Mexico. At the present time, DOE is storing approximately 22,000 cubic feet of contact-handled transuranic waste at the Area 5 Radioactive Waste Management Site at NTS. This waste was generated by nuclear weapons research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and was shipped to the NTS for temporary storage. The radionuclides of primary concern in these wastes are isotopes of plutonium. DOE will make about 110 - 120 truck shipments from NTS to WIPP over a period of about five years. DOE expects to begin these shipments in 1999.

Nevada Governor Bob Miller has designated the Agency for Nuclear Projects/Nuclear Waste Project Office [NWPO] as the lead state agency for planning the proposed DOE shipments of transuranic wastes from NTS to WIPP. NWPO is responsible for coordinating the activities of other state agencies that will be involved with the WIPP shipments. These include the Nevada Office of Emergency Management, the Nevada Highway Patrol, the Nevada Department of Transportation, the Nevada Division of Health, and the State Emergency Response Commission. The Nevada Office of Emergency Management and NWPO have prepared several background reports on WIPP transportation safety issues.

Along with ten other western states, Nevada has been actively involved in the efforts of the Western Governors' Association [WGA] and DOE to cooperatively develop a comprehensive safety program for shipments to WIPP. Nevada and Idaho co-chair the WGA Technical Advisory Group for WIPP Transport. As part of the WGA-DOE safety program, NWPO has prepared this information to inform Nevadans of DOE's shipment plans, the WGA accident prevention and emergency preparedness protocols, and State of Nevada issues and concerns.

What is Transuranic(TRU) Waste? How Risky is TRU Waste Transportation?

Transuranic(TRU) wastes are discarded materials that have been generated from nuclear weapons production, research, and development since the 1940s. TRU waste is currently stored at eleven federal facilities around the country. Prior to 1970, TRU waste was buried at DOE sites in shallow landfills. Since 1970, TRU waste has been stored in a variety of packagings, mainly 55-gallon metal drums and large wooden and metal boxes. [FIGURE 1] Congress has directed DOE to dispose of these wastes at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico.[FIGURE 2]

TRU waste is contaminated with man-made radioactive materials with atomic numbers greater than uranium, such as plutonium, americium, and curium. Transuranic waste is officially defined as waste contaminated with alpha-emitting radionuclides, having atomic numbers greater than 92 and with half-lives greater than 20 years in concentrations greater than 100 nanocuries per gram of waste. These wastes include such materials as laboratory clothing, rubber gloves, tools, glove boxes, glassware, piping, air filters, plastics, wood, metals, and solidified waste water sludges contaminated with transuranic materials.

Some of these wastes contain hazardous chemical constituents(such as carbon tetrachloride, lead, toluene, and xylene). These wastes are called "mixed" transuranic waste. At the present time, all of the TRU waste stored at NTS is considered mixed transuranic (MTRU) waste.

The greatest percentage of waste planned for disposal at WIPP by volume (95 percent) is contact handled (CH) waste that primarily emits alpha radiation. This type of radiation cannot penetrate human skin. [FIGURE 3] Therefore, external exposure to alpha radiation from contamination is usually not serious. CH waste has radiation dose rates at the package surface of 200 millirem per hour or less and can be safely contact-handled without special radiation shielding. Under current plans, all DOE shipments from NTS to WIPP will be CH MTRU TRU waste shipments.

Contact handled transuranic waste shipments pose a range of potential human health hazards. Repeated shipments could expose some workers to higher than normal radiation doses, although routine shipments are not projected to result in any significant exposure to the general public. The primary hazard is inhalation of fine particulates that might be released as a result of an extremely severe transportation accident. Inhalation of certain transuranic materials, such as plutonium, even in microgram quantities, could deliver significant internal radiation doses to the body.

Official DOE risk assessments have calculated that a worst case transportation accident could cause as many as several hundred latent cancer fatalities. While such an accident is extraordinarily unlikely, the potential consequences require stringent safety precautions. The WGA-DOE transport safety program has therefore focused on both accident prevention and emergency response procedures to reduce both the chances and the severity of accidents. DOE's full-scale testing of the TRUPACT-II has demonstrated the shipping container's ability to survive the vast majority of severe accidents without releasing radioactive materials. DOE has addressed these risks by developing training courses in post-accident recovery of the TRUPACT-II, accident-scene monitoring and mitigation, and medical treatment of contaminated victims and responders. DOE has also addressed potentially severe accident situations in full-scale field exercises involving local and state emergency responders.

Some TRU waste also contains activation materials and fission products that decay by beta emission and produce penetrating gamma radiation. This waste is referred to as "remote handled" (RH) if the radiation level at the surface of the packaging exceeds 200 millirem per hour. About 5 percent of the total TRU waste shipped to WIPP will be RH TRU. Unlike the TRUPACT-II, the shipping containers for RH TRU waste will require heavy shielding. DOE currently has no plans to ship any RH TRU waste from NTS to WIPP.

Transuranic Waste Storage at the Nevada Test Site (NTS)

All of the CH TRU waste currently being stored at NTS was generated by nuclear weapons research, testing, and development activities at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and was shipped to NTS between 1974 and 1990. All of this waste is presently classified as mixed transuranic waste (MTRU) due to the potential presence of hazardous chemicals.

The total volume of MTRU in storage at NTS is 612 cubic meters (about 22,000 cubic feet). This waste is packaged in 58 steel boxes and 1,637 steel drums. These wastes have not been assayed to determine their physical characteristics. Assuming that the composition of these wastes is similar to CH TRU waste currently being generated at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the following physical composition would be expected: cellulosic materials, 65 percent; noncorroding metals, plastics, and solid inorganic materials, 10 percent each; and cements, 5 percent.

In 1992, DOE estimated that the MTRU waste in storage at NTS contained about 4.3 kilograms (about 9.5 pounds) of transuranic radionuclides with an estimated alpha radioactivity of about 806 curies. DOE has estimated the percentage(by weight and activity) of major radionuclides present in the TRU waste at NTS as follows:

Major Radionuclides Present in the TRU Waste at NTS

by Weight
by Activity
Plutonium-238Trace 3.51
Plutonium-240 5.8925.37
Plutonium-241 0.54 8.00
Plutonium-242Trace 0.01

MTRU waste is presently stored at the Area 5 Radioactive Waste Management Site in the southeastern corner of NTS, just north of the Town of Mercury [FIGURE 4]. As described in DOE's 1996 NTS Site Treatment Plan, Area 5 operations are governed by the State of Nevada and the DOE/NV Settlement Agreement for TRU Waste Storage. The drums and boxes containing the MTRU are stored on one portion of a two-acre asphalt pad. In 1994, DOE constructed a polyvinyl chloride-coated polyester fabric cover building to protect the containers from weathering before the waste is shipped to WIPP and to control contaminants in the event of a spill. [FIGURE 5] The Settlement Agreement specifies various aspects of DOE MTRU waste storage operations, such as weekly inspections, annual reports, and prior approval of major actions by the State of Nevada. The TRU waste pad cover building has the capacity to store up to 2,600 cubic meters. A Mutual Consent Agreement with the State of Nevada would allow DOE to store certain other wastes, such as NTS cleanup wastes classified as mixed low-level or mixed TRU waste, on the TRU waste pad.

DOE must certify that the MTRU waste stored at NTS meets the WIPP Waste Acceptance Criteria prior to shipping any MTRU waste offsite. None of this waste has yet been certified for disposal at WIPP due to deficiencies in characterization data, oversized packaging, possible prohibitive contents, and a lack of headspace gas and volatile organic compound sampling.

DOE has proposed construction of a Waste Examination Facility in Area 5 for breaching, sampling, and certifying MTRU waste. Beginning in 1997, DOE would examine, inventory, and repackage each drum and box. After repackaging, all MTRU waste would be returned to the Area 5 TRU waste pad to await shipment to WIPP. DOE expects all MTRU waste currently stored at NTS to be certified for disposal at WIPP.

Truck Shipments to WIPP

Since NTS lacks rail access, DOE will use legal-weight trucks for all NTS MTRU waste shipments to WIPP. DOE will make about 110 - 120 truck shipments from NTS to WIPP over a period of about five years. DOE currently plans to begin these shipments in 1999.

DOE has agreed to transport all CH TRU waste to WIPP in the Transuranic Packaging Transporter (TRUPACT-II), a reusable shipping package. [FIGURE 6] The TRUPACT-II is a cylindrical metal container with a flat bottom and a domed top that is transported in an upright position. Inside the TRUPACT-II, the CH waste will be sealed in 55-gallon drums or standard waste boxes. Each TRUPACT-II can hold up to fourteen 55-gallon drums or two standard waste boxes. The loaded TRUPACT-II containers will be mounted on specially designed trailers and pulled by conventional diesel-powered tractors. Once regular operations begin, three TRUPACT-II containers mounted on a trailer will make up a full shipment . [FIGURE 7] Some shipments may, however, consist of one or two TRUPACT-IIs.

DOE will select motor carriers through a competitive contract process. DOE currently has a contract with CAST Transportation, Inc. of Colorado. While DOE is no longer committed to long-term, dedicated contracting with a single motor carrier for all WIPP trucking services, DOE has adopted rigorous carrier selection criteria and carrier performance requirements to ensure that high-quality drivers and vehicles are used for WIPP shipments.

An important feature of the WIPP transportation system is the Transportation Tracking and Communication System (TRANSCOM), a combination of navigation, satellite communication, and computer network technologies to monitor DOE contractor shipments of radioactive materials. [FIGURE 8] Using this system, DOE can continuously monitor the location and status of truck shipments to WIPP and can provide unclassified information concerning current and upcoming shipments to authorized users, such as designated state agencies. The Nevada Office of Emergency Management is currently developing a plan for TRANSCOM deployment in Nevada.

Shipping Container Full Scale Testing

The TRUPACT-II is a Type B Package certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission(NRC) in accordance with 10 CFR 71. As part of the certification process, full-scale TRUPACT-II prototypes were subjected to the most rigorous full-scale testing program ever conducted in the United States. NRC regulations do not require actual drop and fire tests to prove that a proposed nuclear waste shipping container design can survive severe accident conditions. In most instances, the NRC accepts the results of computer simulations and physical tests on scale-models (1/10 to actual size). In the case of TRUPACT-II, DOE agreed to subject full-size TRUPACT-IIs to a series of physical tests in addition to computer analyses and scale modeling. The test results became part of the safety analysis report required by the NRC.

The key performance issue was the ability of the TRUPACT-II to limit any release of radioactive materials to the minute amounts allowed under NRC regulations following a very severe transportation accident. Loss of radiation shielding was not an issue for transport of CH TRU waste. Several innovative design aspects had to be addressed in testing. Unlike most packages previously certified by the NRC, the TRUPACT-II was a flexible rather than a rigid package. The sealing surfaces were designed to move and must survive major deformations without leaking. The proposed structural materials inside the outer stainless-steel shell were high density fire retardant foams or plastics.

The full-scale tests were designed to demonstrate the TRUPACT-II's ability to survive high speed crashes followed by fires and punctures. DOE contractors performed 12 tests dropping TRUPACT-IIs on an unyielding surface from a height of 30 feet, 21 tests dropping TRUPACT-IIs on a puncture pin from a height of 40 inches, and 4 tests subjecting TRUPACT-IIs to a 30-minute fire at 1475 degrees Fahrenheit. [FIGURE 9] The State of New Mexico played a key role in designing and reviewing the tests, which were conducted at Sandia National Laboratory and cost approximately $5 million (1989 dollars). The test program identified several shortcomings in the original design that might not have been found and corrected without full-scale testing. Improved design of the closure seal was a major result.

Highway Routing

Under present law, the DOE must use Interstate highways, urban bypasses, and main or connecting U.S. highways for the transport of highway route controlled quantities(HRCQ) of nuclear materials. These are known as "preferred routes." States may designate alternate routes for radioactive materials shipments using U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines or a similar routing methodology that considers public risk factors and consultation with neighboring states. However, the guidelines emphasize minimization of time and distance of shipments and do not address the unique needs of the State of Nevada, given its highway infrastructure, population distribution, and high non-resident population in tourism areas.

Many of Nevada's concerns about the proposed transuranic waste shipments grow out of uncertainty about the highway routes that will be used. DOE's 1990 Supplement to the Environmental Impact Statement for WIPP proposes that truck shipments use US 95 from Mercury to I-40 near Needles, California, traveling through Las Vegas, Henderson, and Boulder City [FIGURE 10]. This proposed route is not acceptable to the State of Nevada.

DOE's proposed route would pass through the most highly and densely populated area of the state, the Las Vegas Valley. Not only would this route trucks through areas of high resident and non-resident population, it would also result in shipments through two of the three highest accident locations in southern Nevada, I-15 in the Las Vegas urban area and US 95 in the southern portion of the state. In addition, the perceived risk and possible social amplification of risk would be intensified if shipments were routed through this region.

The Nevada Department of Transportation(NDOT) has identified alternative routes which would avoid Las Vegas, Henderson, and Boulder City. Two of the proposed alternatives [A and B] would route WIPP shipments north and east to I-80. [FIGURE 11] Other alternatives identified by NDOT route these shipments into California to connect with I-40 at Barstow or Needles [Routes C, D, E, F]. [FIGURE 12] Under Nevada's routing process, NDOT would recommend designation by the State Transportation Board of one or more state-preferred alternative routes for transuranic waste shipments. No designation has yet been made.

The Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office(NWPO) has also studied the routes identified by NDOT. NWPO believes that only three of the routes identified by NDOT are both technically and politically feasible, and that of these three, one [Route C] is clearly preferred: US 95 from Mercury to Amargosa Valley, Nevada State Route 373 from Amargosa Valley to the California state line, California State Route 127 from the state line to Baker, I-15 from Baker to Barstow, and I-40 from Barstow to New Mexico. Compared to the other alternatives, this route would maximize use of interstate highways, minimize shipments through highly-populated areas and high mountain passes, and minimize overall shipment time and distance.

Use of this route, however, would require the State of California to designate State Route 127 as a state-preferred alternative route, which California has so far declined to do. NDOT notified the California Highway Patrol on March 15, 1994, that "absent California's action" to allow use of California SR-127, "NDOT will recommend to the State Transportation Board the designation of Nevada SR-160 as the preferred route and to undesignate I-15 between the Utah-Nevada Stateline and Las Vegas as a preferred route". The designation of Nevada SR-160 and I-15 between Las Vegas and the Nevada-California Stateline [NDOT Routes D & F] would route all shipments from NTS to WIPP through California on I-15 southbound and I-40 eastbound.

A Nevada decision to designate State Route 160, while technically the safest available route absent concurrence by California, will likely lead to additional controversy in Nevada. This primarily two-lane route traverses areas subject to year-round surface flooding, a high mountain pass subject to severe winter storms, a major year-round tourism area near Mt. Charleston, and several highly-populated areas(the City of Pahrump, the Town of Arden, and the southwestern Las Vegas suburbs). State route designation in Nevada is further complicated by a New Mexico Supreme Court decision which made the City of Santa Fe pay damages to a landowner who claimed loss of property values due to state route designation . The selection of highway routes for shipments from NTS to WIPP must therefore be considered unresolved and subject to change.

WGA-DOE WIPP Transport Safety Program

The State of Nevada has been actively involved in development of the WGA-DOE WIPP Transport Safety Program. The Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office has critically reviewed DOE's WIPP transportation program plans, risk studies, and shipping container testing results. As co-chair of the WGA WIPP Transportation Technical Advisory Group, Nevada assisted in development of WGA's accident prevention and emergency preparedness programs. WGA and DOE published a detailed description of these safety programs, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Transportation Safety Program Implementation Guide, in December, 1995.

WGA and DOE have agreed upon an aggressive accident prevention program to promote safe, routine transportation to WIPP. The accident prevention program has five major components:

  1. State and federal safety audits of the motor carrier to ensure quality drivers and carrier compliance with regulations and contract requirements;

  2. State and federal inspections of drivers, vehicles, and shipping containers;

  3. State and federal procedures to keep shipments off the road during bad weather and road conditions;

  4. State and federal procedures for safe parking when adverse conditions are encountered; and

  5. Federal advance notice of shipments to states and state access to information on shipment status, using real-time satellite tracking of shipments through the TRANSCOM system. [FIGURE 13]

WGA and DOE have also agreed upon a comprehensive emergency preparedness program to manage and mitigate the consequences of WIPP transportation accidents. The emergency preparedness program has four major components:

  1. Mutual aid agreements among neighboring states and written agreements with federal agencies;

  2. Emergency response plans and procedures specifically designed to deal with transportation accidents and incidents involving the TRUPACT-II containers;

  3. Radiation detection and radiation protection equipment specifically designed for transportation accidents and incidents involving contact-handled TRU waste; and

  4. Training, retraining, and exercises for emergency responders. In addition to first response and train-the-trainer courses, DOE and the western states have developed a command and control course for officers in charge of field activities and emergency managers, a mitigation course for radiation health professionals, and a hospital course for emergency room and community health care staff. [FIGURE 14]

State of Nevada Issues and Concerns

The State of Nevada supports the WIPP transportation safety program cooperatively developed by WGA, DOE, and the western states. In several regards the program has established benchmark standards for other DOE shipments of spent nuclear fuel and high level radioactive wastes: full-scale physical testing of shipping containers; recognition of severe accident consequences in DOE risk assessments and emergency response plans; identification of the most likely shipping routes in the DOE EIS; and federal-state cooperation in the development of detailed procedures for accident prevention, especially protocols for stopping shipments due to unsafe equipment, bad weather, and dangerous road conditions.

The State of Nevada's major concern is whether DOE will actually implement the safety program agreed upon by DOE, WGA, and the western states. Budget restrictions and procurement rules have already led DOE to abandon its early commitment to long-term, dedicated contracting with a single, high-quality motor carrier for all trucking services over the life of the facility. Nevada officials are concerned that DOE may not be willing or able to follow through on commitments to use the TRUPACT-II shipping container for all shipments of CH TRU waste; to provide adequate and timely funding for state emergency response planning and training; and to allow states to purchase necessary and appropriate emergency response equipment with the federal funds.

Contacts for Additional Information

The following sources can provide additional information:

Nuclear Waste Project Office
Capitol Complex
Carson City, NV 89710
Phone: (702) 687-3744
Fax: (702) 687-5277

Western Governors' Association
600 17th Street
Suite 1705 South Tower
Denver, CO 80202-5452
Phone: (303) 623-9378
Fax: (303) 534-7309

U.S. Department of Energy-
Carlsbad Area Office
P.O. Box 3090
Carlsbad, NM 88221
Phone: 1-800-336-WIPP

List of Figures

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State of Nevada
Nuclear Waste Project Office
Capitol Complex
Carson City, NV 89710
(702) 687-3744