Press release
Paris, 7 June 1996

Joint NEA/IAEA international peer review of the long-term safety assessment of the US Department of Energy radioactive Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)

Agreement was reached in Paris today between the United States Department of Energy (DOE), the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to organise an international peer review of the long-term safety analysis of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a US disposal facility expected to receive long-lived radioactive waste in the near future.

This peer review, requested by the US DOE’s Carlsbad Area Office, will be organised jointly by the NEA and IAEA as part of the services offered by the two Agencies in the field of radioactive waste management to their member countries.

The WIPP is designed to permanently dispose of transuranic radioactive waste generated by defence-related activities. Transuranic waste consists primarily of clothing, tools, rags and other disposal items contaminated with radioactive elements, mostly plutonium. Located in the State of New Mexico, 42 km (26 miles) east of Carlsbad, WIPP facilities include disposal rooms excavated in an ancient, stable rock salt formation, 654 m (2150 ft) underground.

As in most countries with nuclear programmes, the preferred method for the disposal of long-lived radioactive waste, such as transuranic waste, is its long-term isolation in a system of multiple barriers located in deep and stable geological formations. The WIPP site was selected and constructed to meet the criteria established by the responsible US regulatory authority, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for the safe long-term disposal of transuranic waste. A formal licence application for the disposal of transuranic waste at this site is to be submitted by the DOE to the EPA. This application, called the Compliance Certification Application, will include an assessment of the long-term safety of the repository after its closure.

The objective of the joint NEA/IAEA peer review will be to examine whether the post-closure assessment of the WIPP is appropriate, technically sound and in conformity with international standards and practices.

For the purpose of the review, the NEA and IAEA will constitute a joint secretariat and appoint a group of independent international experts in the various disciplines involved in long-term safety assessments, such as geology, geochemistry, material sciences, radiation and environmental protection, and nuclear safety. The expert group will include representatives from nuclear regulatory bodies, radioactive waste management agencies, universities and research institutions.

The review will start in October 1996 and be conducted over a 6-month period, on the basis of detailed documentation provided by the US Department of Energy and discussions with the specialists involved in this project during a visit to the WIPP. A report containing the international expert group’s findings will be transmitted to the Department of Energy.

Through such peer reviews, it is possible to benefit from the experience of the world’s leading experts in nuclear waste disposal and radiological safety assessments and to take into account the approaches followed by other advanced countries towards the safe disposal of long-lived radioactive waste. These reviews are in line with the NEA and IAEA common objective of promoting the adoption of safe policies and practices for the disposal of radioactive waste in their respective Member.

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