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The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, commonly abbreviated as WIPP is the third deepest geological repository in the world. This is after the closure of the repository German plants such as the Schacht Asse II, and the Morsleben radioactive waste plants. This geological repository site has been licensed to dispose radioactive waste, for a minimum period of 10,000 years. Furthermore, the WIPP is also responsible for the production of nuclear weapons (Olsson, 32). The estimated cost that this nuclear plan incurs is estimated at 19 billion United States dollars. The WIPP is found at 42 km, east of the town of Carlsbad. This town is found in the city of New Mexico, in the county of Eddy. This region is considered as the nuclear corridor of the city of New Mexico, and it also includes a National Enrichment Facility and a Waste Control Facility. Capilla, Jaime, and Andrés (257) therefore explains that New Mexico hosts very important nuclear and geological facilities in United States.
In the year 2010, the department of energy was able to mothball, the previous plans to develop and build the Yucca nuclear waste repository plant in Nevada. This had an effect of leaving the WIPP as the only repository facility that had the capability of storing waste products that had accumulated at the commercial nuclear plants, in the United States (Olsson, 39). However, there were a series of mishaps and accidents in the year 2014, and this is because of the growing backlog of nuclear waste, that were emanating from commercial nuclear power plants (Seong and Yoram, 1011). Because of these accidents and mishaps, there is a growing concern that this situation may turn into a danger to the citizens of the country, hence the need of building more nuclear repositories that can handle the nuclear activities of the country.
Geological History of the WIPP:
The WIPP is located in the Delaware Basin of the state of New Mexico. It is a 600 meter deep in length, and it is a salt basin. This basin was formed during the periods of the Permian, and it is approximately 250 million years ago. The Permian is a geological period, and it is characterized by the diversification of organisms into turtles, mammals, archosaurs, etc. Capilla, Jaime, and Andrés (255) explains that an ancient sea once existed where the Delaware Basin is, and it evaporated over a given period of time. This had an effect of leaving an impermeable layer of salt that over a given period of time was able to cover a 300 meters of rock and soil. Olsson (41) further explains that the Delaware basin has some geological similarities with other basins that were created or made through the evaporation of the sea. One of this characteristic is the existence of salts and rocks. The Delaware basin is very salty and rocky, hence depicting this universal characteristic that is found in all the basins that exists because of the evaporation of the sea.
The saltiness of these basins occurs because of the nature of the sea, which is always salty. In 1975, the department of energy began drilling in the salty beds of the Delaware Basin. Geologists were able to discover that the edge of the Delaware Basin had experienced some disturbances. This had led to the movement of the interbed layers to a vertical position. In response, the geologists were able to move the site towards a more stable center of the Delaware basin. Capilla, Jaime, and Andrés (255) explains that there was a suggestion during the early periods of investigation, that the complexity of the geological basin was problematic. This had an effect of causing or making the hollowed-out caverns as unstable. However, Seong and Yoram (1011) explain that what others consider as a form of instability is viewed as a positive aspect, and this is because salt is transformed into a rock. Furthermore, as early as 1957, the National Academy of Science was able to recommend that salt should be used as a radioactive waste disposal. This is because it had the capability of plastically deforming a motion that is referred to as the salt creep, which exists in the salt-mining industry (Olsson, 32). This helps in sealing and closing any opening that is created during the process of mining. Furthermore, it also closes and seals any opening that is found around the repository.
Geological Location of the WIPP:
The WIPP lies on a general flat plain, which is covered with caliche, desert bushes, and sand. The geological name of the region in which the WIPP is located, is called the gypsum-karst region. A subsidence landform, commonly referred to as the Nash Draw lies 5 km, across the Western side of the WIPP site. The Nash Draw is 10 to 16 km wide, on the eastern side of the WIPP, and it has experienced a series of erosion by fill and solution of soluble rocks (Olsson, 27). This is a process that has happened in the past period, and it is also currently happening. The Pecos River also flows from the North West of the WIPP to the South East of the repository. This river is approximately 20 km, from the repository. Because of the existence of saline creeps along the Pecos River, the WIPP has been identified as an area that has the capability of discharging nuclear waste products that emanate from the commercial nuclear sites, and the repository itself.
Geological Issues related with WIPP:
The geological characterization of the WIPP began in 1974, after the government abandoned the Lyons, Kansas site. The government abandoned this site, in the year 1972. The Atomic Energy Commission was the one which was responsible for selecting the Kansas site. However, it was deemed unsuitable because of unmapped gas and oil wells, which were located within the region or area (Mahaffey, 38). These unmapped wells had the potential of compromising the ability of the planned plant to contain and preserve nuclear waste. The government feared that proceeding with the construction of a nuclear site at the Kansas location, may lead to the emergence of serious health hazards, such as nuclear leakages. This may result to a serious negative impact on the environment.
This is because nuclear wastes have the capability of destroying the environment, and the lives of people. Because these concerns were raised by the people, and professional geologists, the government was able to abandon this program, and look for a new site. In relocating this project to New Mexico, the government was encouraged by the interests that emerged from the communities living in the region. Based on these facts, the department of energy was able to relocate this new program to the Delaware salt beds, which are located in New Mexico. The early activities that characterized the classification of the site was focused on obtaining data on hydrology, potash resources, and stratigraphy at the WIPP site. As these studies continued, a variety of geological processes and features were identified, and these features could negatively affect the capabilities of a radioactive waste repository system. Because of the existence of these geological issues and safety concerns, the exact location of building this site was able to change on numerous occasions.
This is because the government was keen on protecting the security of the community of people living in the Basin. One of the minerals that posed a safety concern was the presence of Brine deposits. The discovery of brine occurred in the year 1975, when a drilling process was able to release a pressurized deposit of brine, from beneath the repository level. Olsson (46) therefore explains that construction of this plant, near the brine deposits could compromise the safety of the facility. This is because brine has the capability of leaking into the repository, and hence dissolving the radioactive particles or elements. Furthermore, brine had the capability of entraining particulate matter or elements with radioactive waste substances to the surface. This can negatively affect the environment, and the people living within the environment under consideration. These were some of the factors that were considered during the creation and development of the WIPP nuclear plant.
Importance of WIPP to the Study:
Understanding the geological characteristics and formation of WIPP is important because of the fact that it is a nuclear facility, and any breaches of its security, can lead to very grave security concerns and environmental damages. Take for example the Fukushima Daiichi disaster of 2011. This was a Japanese nuclear disaster that occurred in the year 2011, after being hit by a tsunami (Fermi and Salvatore, 41). This disaster saw the release of a substantial amount of radio-active elements, making it one of the largest nuclear disasters of all time. This led to the contamination of the Pacific sea, affecting the marine life there. Furthermore, there were risks that people could acquire cancer, because of exposure to radioactive elements. Understanding the geological properties and conditions of WIPP would help in minimizing risks associated with the leakage of radioactive elements (Fermi and Salvatore, 41).
Storing nuclear waste substances always gives a significant problem to the continuous usage of nuclear substances or materials. There are various challenges that exists in the storage of these nuclear facilities, and this is demonstrated by 2011 Japanese nuclear crisis, and the recent fires that occur at the WIPP nuclear plant. Salt mines have been traditionally used as storage sites for nuclear plants; however, workers in these locations are always vulnerable to acquiring medical conditions that are not conducive to them. Furthermore, the notion that salt mines have the capability of blocking a diffusion of waste products is not a certain belief. It is based on these facts that the WIPP repository should be placed under heavy surveillance to ensure that it does not present a health hazard or risk to the community living there.
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Seong, Kwanjae, and Yoram Rubin. “Field Investigation of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
(WIPP) Site (New Mexico) Using a Nonstationary Stochastic Model with a Trending Hydraulic Conductivity Field.” Water Resources Research (1999): 1011. Print.
Capilla, José E., J. Jaime Gömez-Hernández, and Andrés Sahuquillo. “Stochastic Simulation of Transmissivity Fields Conditional to Both Transmissivity and Piezometric Head Data—3.
Application to the Culebra Formation at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plan (WIPP), New Mexico, USA.” Journal of Hydrology (1998): 254-69. Print.
Olsson, P. Nuclear Reactors, Nuclear Fusion and Fusion Engineering. New York: Nova Science, 2009. Print.
Fermi, Enrico, and Salvatore Esposito. Neutron Physics for Nuclear Reactors Unpublished Writings. Singapore: World Scientific, 2010. Print.
Mahaffey, James A. Nuclear Fission Reactors. New York: Facts on File, 2011. Print.
This image was removed from the ENERGY.GOV website, managed by the Office of the Environmental Management (Energy.gov, 5).
The following is a link to the website,
This is a truck carrying nuclear waste products, shipping them to the WIPP. This image is developed courtesy of ENERGY.GOV (Energy.gov, 5).