The Energy Department and its contractor for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) have summed up their arguments to the New Mexico state government for a new system of recording underground waste disposal volume.
Together with AECOM-led Nuclear Waste Partnership, DOE filed its closing statement with the New Mexico Environment Department on Nov. 28, following a hearing in late October on their requested permit modification for the disposal site near Carlsbad.
Under the permit revision, the empty spaces between drums of defense transuranic material inside disposal cannisters would no longer be counted as waste under the 1992 WIPP Land Withdrawal Act. “The definition of TRU waste is prescribed by statute, and it is clear. Void space, dunnage [typically fiberboard filler between drums], and other non-waste material are not TRU waste.”
This empty space should not count toward the Land Withdrawal Act’s disposal volume limit of 6.2 million cubic feet, or 176,000 cubic meters, DOE says. The agency has said this altered counting method, applied retroactively, would cut the waste volume counted against the cap by about 30 percent and prevent underutilization of the disposal site.
Under the current counting method, DOE has already empaneled roughly 90,000 cubic meters of material, more than half its limit, and some forecasts say it could be reached before 2030. The requested change would shrink the official total to about 60,000 cubic meters.
The permit revision has been formally protested by three advocacy groups: The Southwest Research and Information Center, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, and Nuclear Watch New Mexico. Among other things, the organizations have said the request is inconsistent with the legislative intent of the Land Withdrawal Act; is a major departure from past practice; and that leaks could happen inside overpack containers.
None of their arguments presented at the hearing are persuasive, the Energy Department said.
The next big milestone will be issuance of a recommendation on the DOE request by the state hearings officer to NMED Secretary Butch Tongate, which is expected within 30 days. Tongate would then be expected to adopt, modify, or set aside the recommendation.