The United States of America Department of Energy plans to construct the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico to demonstrate the feasibility of disposing of defense-related radioactive waste in bedded salt at a depth of 650 metres below the surface. The location was carefully selected to contain the radioactive waste for thousands of years until the natural decay process renders the waste nontoxic. Under the present authorization, the construction of exploratory shafts to the repository level and the excavation of underground experimental entries are scheduled to begin under the design validation program in July 1980. The program is intended to conduct the necessary measurements and observations to support critical design parameters. The full design capability of the plant will only be realized after sufficient supporting data have been accumulated to ensure the safety of both short-term operation and long-term disposal of nuclear waste. The completed plant will include surface and underground facilities for receiving and disposing of waste. Four shafts Will be constructed to serve the requirements of material handling and ventilation. The underground plant will extend over 850 000 square metres, The total cost of the project is estimated at about $450 million.


In the United States, the accumulation of radioactive waste and its safe disposal have become key elements in the debate on the use of nuclear energy. In parallel with the program dealing with disposal of waste from the nuclear power projects, safe and reliable methods of permanently disposing of radioactive waste accumulated from the defense program must be demonstrated. A major effort to resolve the issue will be made in the semiarid plain and sand dune country near Carlsbad, New Mexico (Figure 1). The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) plans to construct the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) to demonstrate the feasibility of disposing of defense-related radioactive waste at a depth of 650 metres in the bedded salt of the Delaware basin. The satisfactory placement of defense radioactive waste in deep geologic formations will provide an important technical demonstration of a disposal scheme to defense-related work and will provide further information which can be adapted to the disposal of commercial radioactive waste under the U.S. Waste Management Program.

WIPP is not a pilot plant in the usual meaning of a limited small-scale plant but will be a full-scale facility when completely developed. However, the full design capability will only be realized after sufficient supporting in-situ data have been collected under a limited, design validation program. This program includes the construction of two exploratory shafts, experimental entries and test rooms (Figure 2).

The WIPP program is the result of waste management efforts that were started by the U.S. Government as far back as 1955 when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission requested the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate methods of disposing of radioactive waste in geologic formations. After various studies were completed, the Academy recommended bedded salt as the geologic formation providing the highest confidence for long-term isolation of radioactive waste from the biosphere.

This content is only available via PDF.
You can access this article if you purchase or spend a download.