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Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
WIPP, a geological repository for radioactive waste
Country  United States
State  New Mexico
County Eddy County
Nearest city Carlsbad
Location 42 km east of Pecos River
 - elevation 1,038 m (3,406 ft)
 - coordinates 32°22′18″N 103°47′37″W / 32.37167°N 103.79361°W / 32.37167; -103.79361
Geology Permian, Salado Formation
Date 26 March 1999
Management United States Department of Energy
Easiest access New Mexico State Road 128
Schematic of WIPP facility
Website: DOE: Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, is the world's third deep geological repository (after closure of Germany's Repository for radioactive waste Morsleben and the Schacht Asse II Salt Mine) licensed to permanently dispose of transuranic radioactive waste for 10000 years[1] that is left from the research and production of nuclear weapons. It is located approximately 26 miles (42 km) east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, in eastern Eddy County.



The United States Department of Energy began planning for the facility in 1974.[2] After more than 20 years of scientific study, public input, and regulatory struggles, WIPP began operations on March 26, 1999. Disposal operations are expected to continue until 2070 with active monitoring for a further hundred years. By 2006, the facility had already processed 5,000 shipments of waste. Research is ongoing on the disturbed rock zone geomechanics at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant[3].


Waste that is to be disposed of at WIPP must meet certain "waste acceptance criteria". WIPP is unsuited for high level radioactive waste[citation needed] as its high heat attracts water which would lead to rapid corrosion of the waste packages, and the dissolution of the waste into the salty water.[citation needed] It accepts transuranic waste generated from Department of Defense activities. The waste must have radioactivity exceeding 100 nCi per gram from TRUs that produce alpha radiation with a half life greater than 20 years. This criteria includes Pu, U, Am, and Np among others. Mixed waste contains both radioactive and hazardous constituents, and WIPP fist received mixed waste on September 9, 2000. Mixed waste is joint regulated by the EPA and the New Mexico Environment Department.

The containers can also only contain a limited amount of liquids. The energy released from radioactive materials will dissociate water into hydrogen and oxygen. This could then create a potentially explosive environment inside the container. The containers must be vented, as well, to prevent this from happening.


Waste is placed in rooms 2,150 feet (655 m) underground that have been excavated within a 3,000 foot (1000 m) thick salt formation (Salado and Castile Formations) where salt tectonics has been stable for more than 250 million years[citation needed]. Because of plasticity effects salt and water will flow to any cracks that develop, it was chosen as a host medium for the WIPP project. Because drilling or excavation in the area will be hazardous long after the area is being actively used, there are plans to construct markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion for the next ten thousand years.[4][5][6]

The Salado Formation is a massive bedded salt deposit (>99% NaCl) that has a simple hydrogeology. Because massive NaCl is somewhat plastic and holes close under pressure, the rock becomes non-porous by effectively closing pores and fractures. This has a significant effect on the overall hydraulic conductivities (water permeabilities) and molecular diffusion coefficients. These are on the order of ≤10-14 m/s and ≤10-15 m2/s respectively.[7][8]

Message for the future

Since 1991, the United States Department of Energy has been working with a team of linguists, scientists, science fiction writers, anthropologists and futurists to come up with such a warning system. The markers, called "passive institutional controls", will include an outer perimeter of 32, 25-foot-tall granite pillars built in a four-mile (6 km) square. These pillars will surround an earthen wall, 33 feet (10 m) tall and 100 feet (30 m) wide. Enclosed within this wall will be another 16 granite pillars. At the center, directly above the waste site, will sit a roofless, 15-foot (4.6 m) granite room providing more information. The team intends to etch warnings and informational messages into the granite slabs and pillars. This information will be recorded in the six official languages of the United Nations (English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic) as well as the Native American Navajo language native to the region, with additional space for translation into future languages . Pictograms are also being considered, such as stick figure images and the iconic "The Scream" from Edvard Munch's painting. Complete details about the plant will not be stored on site, instead, they would be distributed to archives and libraries around the world. The team plans to submit their final plan to the U.S. Government by around 2028.[9]

See also


  1. ^ DOE Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Receives EPA Recertification
  2. ^ Charles Piller (3 May 2006). "An Alert Unlike Any Other". Los Angeles Times.,1,7584113.story. BROKEN
  3. ^ Disturbed Rock Zone Geomechanics at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
  4. ^ WIPP Permanent Markers Implementation Plan, rev1 (2004)
  5. ^ Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Sandia National Laboratories report SAND92-1382 / UC-721 (1993)
  6. ^ Excerpts of SAND92-1382 in HTML format
  7. ^ R. L. BEAUHEIM and R. M. ROBERTS, “Hydrology and hydraulic properties of a bedded evaporite formation,” Journal of Hydrology, 259:66-88 (2002).
  8. ^ J. L. CONCA, M.J. APTED, and R.C. ARTHUR, “Aqueous Diffusion in Repository and Backfill Environments,” In Scientific Basis for Nuclear Waste Management XVI, Materials Research Society Symposium Proceedings, vol. 294, p. 395 (1993).
  9. ^ "Danger! Keep Out! Do Not Enter!". Science Illustrated. May/June 2008. 

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