The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant managers plan to make use of the space starting next year. To protect the walls, workers will still need to turn on power in the Panel 8 excavation area.
The repository is located in southern New Mexico and contains radioactive remains from decades of bomb-making and nuclear research. This includes specially packed boxes and barrels containing lab coats, rubber gloves and tools, as well as other radioactive materials.
In 2014, a radiation leak contaminated some underground facilities, making it difficult to have enough space. This caused a costly, three-year closure. Some areas of the repository were made unaccessible. This incident delayed the federal government’s cleanup program, and led to policy changes at national labs and other defense-related sites throughout the U.S.
State regulators are currently considering a permit amendment that could allow for expanded operations at the repository. The decision is expected to be made later in the year.
Reinhard Knerr is a Carlsbad Field Office manager for the Department of Energy. He said that although Panel 8 had been delayed, it would be completed in the shortest time possible. Panel 7 will be complete by April.
Panel 8 is 300 feet long (91 meters), 33 feet (10 metres) wide and 15 feet (4.5m) high. Officials claim that laser measuring devices were used for guiding the mining machines that cut salt. Large trucks were used to transport the material to a hoist to transport it to the surface.
Officials claim that more than 157,000 tonnes (142,428 metric tons) of salt were extracted during the project.
Next up for the mining machines is carving drifts or passageways that will connect to a utility shaft currently under construction.