Fan Restart Exemplifies Improvements to WIPP Infrastructure

The pandemic did not halt work to increase the underground air flow at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) salt mine, the expansion of mining or the replacement of aging infrastructure.

One of the site’s legacy fans, the 700-C, that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) thought was contaminated with radioactive particles after the 2014 accidental radiological release, is back in operation after two years of testing and evaluation.

Pictured: The 700c fan restarted at WIPP last month to bring more air into the underground so maintenance activities and mining could happen together. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.  

The DOE said operation of the fan would cause minimal exposure to radiation for workers and vastly increase air flow in the underground salt mine so that workers could continue maintenance activities like bolting and mining of underground panels at the plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico.

USW Local 12-9477 workers insert steel bolts into the salt passageways and rooms to slow down the salt movement and to increase safety. The local’s workers also emplace drums of low-level transuranic waste about 2,000 feet underground, and the salt slowly moves in and buries the waste. Transuranic waste includes tools, clothing and other items contaminated with radioactive elements, mostly plutonium, as a result of the nation’s nuclear defense program.

USW Local 12-9477 President Rick Fuentes wrote an open letter of support for the restart of the 700-C fan. “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,” he wrote.

The 700-C fan supplements airflow until the rebuild of WIPP’s primary ventilation structure—the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System—is finished in 2025.

DOE said construction work on the ventilation system’s three major facilities advanced in 2021. Construction workers completed the foundation three weeks early for the New Filter Building, where 1,000-horsepower fans will pull air through HEPA filtration. This prompted construction of the building’s walls.

Construction workers installed precast concrete walls and a roof for the Salt Reduction Building, and the utility shaft, a massive air intake system that will force air underground, reached 124 feet of its projected 2,275-foot depth.

Local 12-9477 miners finished excavating salt to create Panel 8, and workers are installing power, communications and air monitors inside the panel. It will be ready for union workers to emplace drums of transuranic waste when they fill Panel 7 this April.

Mining also began moving westward in 2021, which is a change from the site’s north-south underground configuration. After the New Mexico Environment Department approved a new utility shaft and passageways, the underground mining headed west.

During the two-month maintenance outage in 2021, Local 12-9477 workers overhauled the site’s aging infrastructure and completed 97 projects, including removal of tracks at the underground waste station and leveling the area with gravel and salt.

“I’m proud of the work our members did last year to make the salt mine safer,” Fuentes said. “Their essential work is reducing the nuclear footprint at DOE sites around the country.”

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