Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Works to Improve Underground Air Flow

Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP), the prime contractor, at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), last month conducted a safety test of one of its large exhaust fans that has been out of commission since a 2014 radiation leak.

Despite the break in its use, the 700-C, which draws a high volume of unfiltered air from the underground salt mine, is needed to improve airflow, said USW Local 12-9477 President Rick Fuentes. 

“The additional airflow will improve air quality for employees working in the underground, which will allow us to better support Ground Control, Waste Emplacement and Mining activities,” said Fuentes.

Workers at WIPP emplace transuranic waste in containers placed in panels that are mined out of an underground salt formation.

USW members use diesel-powered equipment underground, which makes it especially critical to ensure a safe breathing environment.

The 700-C fan, if it returns to operation after the testing is completed, would increase airflow in support of non-waste handling underground operations such as mining, installation of rock bolts and maintenance cycles in an unfiltered mode.

NWP and the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, an independent organization, monitored the air for radionuclides during the 700-C restart test. According to preliminary data, the test went according to plan.

Fuentes said the 700-C fan significantly increased air flow underground during its initial four-hour test, and NWP calculated that the radiation exposure a person would receive would be less than DOE regulatory limits.

Photo courtesy Dept. of Energy

Once the test data is analyzed, DOE will post the full results on the WIPP website, and it will schedule a town hall meeting to discuss the findings.

The USW will continue to work closely with the Department of Energy (DOE) Carlsbad Field Office and NWP management to resolve any remaining issues before the 700-C fan is restarted.

As the tests of the 700-C fan continue, the WIPP site is also involved in its annual maintenance outage that began Feb.15 and is expected to end April 14.

In addition to other maintenance work, one priority will be work on the other fans that provide air to the underground portion of the site.

Maintenance work on the fans will help ensure proper ventilation for workers as WIPP increases its number of waste shipments.

The DOE wants WIPP to receive up to 325 waste shipments in 2021, and there have been 70 shipments so far this year until the start of the maintenance work.

Press Inquiries

Media Contacts

Communications Director:
Jess Kamm at 412-562-2446

USW@WORK (USW magazine)
Editor R.J. Hufnagel

For industry specific inquiries,
Call USW Communications at 412-562-2442

Mailing Address

United Steelworkers
Communications Department
60 Blvd. of the Allies
Pittsburgh, PA 15222