Colorado Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Program

Trucks in a lot

Photo courtesy of the US Dept. of Energy

Keeping Radiological and Nuclear Waste Shipments Safe and Secure

The genesis for safe transportation has revolved around the planning for and transportation of radiological and nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).  Through the years, WIPP has served as a model program from which to draw parallels for preparedness for transportation planning and the conduct of other campaigns of radiological and nuclear waste across the nation.

WIPP, the nation's repository for defense-related transuranic radiological and nuclear wastes, is located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico. The facility is built in a 250 million year-old salt formation 2,150 feet below the surface. Wastes generated from research, development and production of nuclear weapons at US Department of Energy sites across the country are transported by highway to the WIPP.

Regional Cooperation

The State of Colorado has been working with the US Department of Energy for more than 30 years, both independently and with a coalition of 11 other western states through the Western Governors' Association and Western State Energy Board, to maintain a system for safe and uneventful transport of radioactive materials through western states. The WIPP Transportation Safety Program is a collaborative effort among the shipment-corridor states, tribes, local officials and the US Department of Energy. The program goes well beyond what is required by law. No other shipments on the road have undergone as much scrutiny by transportation safety specialists as WIPP shipments.

History of Radiological and Nuclear Waste Shipments

Leaders and residents of Colorado are concerned about the transportation of radiological and nuclear wastes through the state. The Colorado Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Program has accomplished a great deal in implementing and maintaining a rigorous preparedness and response program for shipping along the Interstate 25 corridor. Preparedness activities have been focused in the areas such as accident prevention, planning, training, security, routing, public education, and collaboration between states and regional coordinating groups across the nation.

Back in 1970, the US Department of Energy (DOE) stored transuranic wastes from the production of the nation's nuclear weapons at the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site and at other facilities throughout the nation. By 1987, preparations for waste shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant were underway, and the transports to WIPP began in late March 1999. Shipments from Rocky Flats began on June 15, 1999, and were completed in April 2006.

Over the 30 year life of WIPP, it has been projected that 74.8 percent of all DOE transuranic waste in the United States will move through Colorado.  As of September 18, 2013, a total of 73.2 percent of the transuranic waste has  been shipped through Colorado.  As the US Department of Energy proposes additional waste streams for possible disposal at the WIPP, it is anticipated that the facility will be open many more years to meet those additional demands.

There are five main sites from which the waste has been or is being sent through Colorado to the WIPP:

  • Idaho National Laboratory
  • Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site, now closed
  • Argonne National Laboratory - in Lamonte, Illinois
  • Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California

A fifth site has shipped waste that transited Colorado:  Hanford Reservation. However, Hanford is not slated to ship anything in the foreseeable future.  The conclusion of WIPP shipments is tied to the closure of Hanford Site so resumption of shipments is important to the national cleanup scheme. In addition, it is anticipated that there will be some site-to-site shipments. For instance, shipments are occasionally made to Idaho for characterization or consolidation from the National Laboratories in New Mexico:  Los Alamos or Sandia, as well as from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. At the regional level, Colorado and other western states developed protocols in collaboration with the Western Governors' Association (WGA), Western Interstate Energy Board (WIEB), the US Department of Energy and other interested agencies for the safe transportation of transuranic waste to WIPP.

Radioactive Transuranic Waste

Transuranic wastes are generated primarily during the research, development and production of nuclear weapons. The waste is contaminated with man-made radioactive materials and consists primarily of discarded items such as laboratory clothing, tools, plastics, rubber gloves, wood, metals, glassware, ash, and solidified waste. There are no free liquids in the drums.

  • Transuranic waste is contaminated with radioactive materials that have atomic numbers greater than uranium, such as plutonium, americium and curium.
  • Transuranic waste is officially defined as waste contaminated with alpha-emitting radionuclides having atomic numbers greater than 92 and with half-lives greater than 20 years and in concentrations greater than 100 nanocuries per gram of waste.
  • Transuranic waste isotopes remain radioactive for a long period of time and must, therefore, be handled separately from other wastes.
  • Some of these wastes, known as "mixed" transuranic waste, also contain hazardous chemical constituents.
  • Most of these wastes are "contact-handled" meaning that the radiation they emit does not require heavy lead shielding. The primary radiation hazard posed by this waste is through inhalation or ingestion.
  • The remaining waste is referred to as "remote-handled" because it requires heavy shielding and presents a much more significant external radiation hazard than contact-handled waste. About four percent of WIPP-bound waste by volume is classified as "remote-handled".

Waste Transportation Containers

All transuranic radioactive waste is transported to the WIPP in US Nuclear Regulatory Commission-certified Type B containers, even though the highly secure containers are not required. Type B casks have been designed to withstand any conceivable traffic accident, with much stronger packaging than that which is used in the transport of other hazardous materials.

All contact-handled transuranic wastes are transported reusable shipping packages or “casks” such as the Transuranic Packaging Transporter (TRUPACT-II), TRUPACT-III, or a HalfPACT.  Remote-handled transuranic waste is shipped in the RH-72B cask because it provides more shielding from penetrating gamma radiation.  Photographs of the casks may be found on this page.

Specific Focal Areas 

Accident Prevention 

  • Drivers and Carriers
  • Inspections
  • Bad Weather and Road Conditions
  • Shipment Notification and Tracking

Transportation Preparedness

  • Emergency Response Plans and Procedures
  • Training
  • Exercises
  • Emergency Response Equipment
  • Medical Preparedness Included in Training and Equipment
  • Routing
  • Security
  • Resources for Clinicians and Emergency Response Personnel

Public Information and Outreach  The closure of WIPP in 2014 and resumption of WIPP Shipments through Colorado in 2017 is addressed in this section.

Radiological and Nuclear Waste Transportation Policy

Other Radiological and Nuclear Waste Shipments  Includes photos of other nuclear waste shipments. 


Return to main Nuclear Materials Transportation Oversight page.