Terms of the Week March 25, 2014

March 25, 2014

Terms of the Week: All Terms Pertaining to the WIPP Plant

The Waste Isolation Pilot Program only accepts what is called Transuranic Waste or TRU waste. While they have requested from Hanford to be able to accept High Level Radioactive Waste, only TRU waste is currently stored at WIPP.

In order to understand the ongoing issues at the Waste Isolation Pilot Program  (WIPP), it is helpful to learn the terminology that coincides with both kinds of nuclear waste, high level and TRU. A note to you however, is that this is complicated. In order to fully understand these terms we must break down terms into more terms for you.

Nuclear Waste –All nuclear power plants create nuclear waste. You might even hear that Small Modular Reactors running on Thorium, do not. Wrong. They do create nuclear waste. All nuclear power plants create nuclear waste.

1.High Level Nuclear Waste— High Level Waste is hazardous to humans and all life forms. This is referring to  the amount of radiation within the waste itself. Even very short periods of exposure produce fatal doses. There are two kinds of HLNW.

Uranium fuel is High Level Nuclear Waste which has been used in nuclear reactors for a certain time period. You’ve heard called Fuel Rods. When the uranium-235 pellets on the inside of those fuel rods have completed  their job for powering the reactor by creating fission, they are termed Spent, as in Spent Fuel Rods.


A.Spent Fuel Rods–This is another term. And an oxymoronic term at that! Spent Fuel is never spent. It will remain the most radioactive substance on our planet which men created, for thousands of years to come. It will require remote handling and shielding or the releases from the waste will create cancers in all who inhale or digest it. Protecting this highly radioactive waste is extremely difficult, unrealistic and so far has proven impossible to keep safe from outside of its containment. Fuel Rods are removed from nuclear reactors about every 12 to 18 months and are moved to Fuel Pools for cooling.

Process to get to be a Spent Fuel Rod:

1.Uranium Mines are created usually on Native American lands

2. Uranium is dug up creating tailing ponds on the land leaving cancer in it’s wake usually to Native American’s living on the land of the uranium mine. It is common to find children playing near these mines. Learn more.

Abandoned uranium mine in Black Hills, SD on Lakota Land

Abandoned uranium mine in Black Hills, SD on Lakota Land


3. Processing Uranium for depleted uranium which will be sold to nuclear power plants. Processing uranium at the Paducah Plant needed 11 coal plants to fuel the uranium processing plant in order to make fuel that was sold to the Columbia Generating Station in 2012 for more than it was worth on the open market.

4. Fuel rods are used in Nuclear Reactors for power to generate boiling water.

Nuclear Fuel Pellets

Nuclear Fuel Pellets

5. When the rods are “spent” they go to a cooling pool for 3-7 years after which, these still very high radioactive rods get moved to underground tanks or dry cask storage. But the rods or Waste, will stay hot for at least 1000 years, much longer than any containment material can withstand. The duration for containment for tanks has been seen to be 20 years at most for underground double shelled tanks and possibly 40 years for dry cask storage. That is a long way from a minimum of 100 years.


B. Spent Cooling Pools

Spent fuel pools are storage pools for spent fuel from nuclear reactors. They must be deep enough to keep all fuel rods and fuel bundles covered in cool water in order to keep them from becoming too hot and exploding as we witnessed in Building 4 at Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. Rods are kept at these cooling pools for years until they are cool enough, though always hot (highly radioactive), to move to dry cask storage or to get reprocessed. The water acts as a buffer to keep radiation from escaping from the rods.

Fuel Rods in pool

Fuel Rods in pool

Many Spent Cooling Pools are 6 stories high with no containment around the building. This was the case in Japan and is the case at Nuclear Plants in the United States like the Columbia Generating Station in WA State. The lack of containment only makes this more dangerous to all life near these reactors or in the wind’s path. An Event could cause the pool to dry out as in the case in Japan, and the rods to explode causing hundreds of radionuclides to blow clear into the atmosphere. We are still seeing Black Dust from the Zirconium Cladding around the fuel rods as far from Fukushima as Tokyo and South of Tokyo in Japan.

Transuranic Waste: When uranium atoms split during the production of nuclear power, it creates fission products like cesium-137 and strontium-90. These isotopes, as they are called, are part of high-level waste. Sometimes uranium atoms also capture heavier elements like plutonium. When the isotopes are heavier than uranium, they are called Transuranic or TRU. TRU waste account for much of the radioactive high-level waste lasting more than one thousand years. WIPP accepts TRU waste from Hanford and from other sites around the country.

DOE Drums of TRU Waste for WIPP

DOE Drums of TRU Waste for WIPP


WIPP is America’s only deep geological nuclear repository located about 2,150 ft deep inside a salt mine. The story about WIPP was always that Nothing Can Go Wrong At WIPP. In early Feb of 2014 a truck caught inside the mine. On Feb 14 of 2014 part of the ceiling collapsed crushing multiple 500 gallon drums contain TRU waste. Americium and Plutonium were released traveling up the vent system 2, 150 ft high to the outside and then traveling airborne for a definitive 2 mile stretch where Plutonium was found. The DOE has not released ongoing radiation figures or allowed the public to know what exactly happened in the salt mine but as of this date, March 25, 2014, the WIPP company can still not go inside the mine due to high amounts of radiation. The DOE and WIPP officials continue to tell the public that the radiation levels are too low to worry about but apparently too hot for them to go inside the plant.