Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 33 No. 47
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December 09, 2022

New Mexico could pull plug on WIPP decades sooner than DOE wants

By Wayne Barber

In draft permit materials rolled out Thursday, the state of New Mexico said it could potentially seek closure of the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad a half-century before the feds might like.

The New Mexico Environment Department wants to ensure in-state transuranic waste shipments from DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory are a priority at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), and says it could require closure of the underground salt mine within 10 years absent an “accurate inventory of all remaining wastes” bound for the WIPP, according to a press release.

The DOE Office of Environmental Management has said it envisions running WIPP beyond 2050 and maybe into the 2080s. DOE also expects the facility to play a central role in disposing of transuranic waste resulting from planned plutonium pit production at Los Alamos as well as the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

The state regulator also said it can yank the operating permit from DOE and its prime contractor “should the U.S. Congress change the federal Land Withdrawal Act to allow for increased waste emplacement at WIPP.” New Mexico also calls for annual updates on what DOE is doing to look for other deep geologic waste sites outside the Land of Enchantment.

Those are among the conditions the New Mexico Environment Department will seek to impose in the hazardous waste plan. The actual draft permit hits the street Dec. 20, triggering a 60-day comment period running through Feb. 18.

Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program for the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center, likes what he sees so far from the New Mexico agency. The state is taking a position opposing a “Forever WIPP,” Hancock said.

Also, it shows “New Mexico is going to insist that WIPP cannot be the only TRU waste disposal site,” Hancock said via email.

“We look forward to reviewing the draft permit in depth and participating in the upcoming public comment period,” a DOE spokesperson said in a Thursday evening email reply to an Exchange Monitor inquiry. “We value the relationship we have with NMED and Secretary [James] Kenney and are eager to work with him and his team on next steps.”

The state agency released a fact sheet and statement saying the new 10-year permit “enhances accountability, establishes stronger safeguards for New Mexicans.”

“The New Mexico Environment Department is taking a strong stance to protect the health, environment and interests of New Mexicans,” said Environment Secretary James Kenney. Kenney oversees the state agency for New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D).

As of late November, WIPP had received 72 shipments of defense-related transuranic waste from Los Alamos, according to the disposal site’s public website. That is up from 56 during the 2021 calendar year. 

Los Alamos’ transuranic waste output is set to increase sharply by the middle of the decade, when DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration plans to begin producing plutonium pits for nuclear weapons at the lab. That significant new transuranic waste stream was set to have top priority for space at WIPP, DOE has said.

William (Ike) White, the DOE’s acting boss of the Office of Environmental Management has publicly backed the idea of more shipments from Los Alamos, as recently as an advisory board meeting last week in New Orleans.

But the state is increasing its expectations of the federal agency in other ways.

The New Mexico Environment Department is “clearly defining its ability to suspend waste shipments to the WIPP facility if there is allegation or evidence of a threat to human health or the environment or any Permit noncompliance,” according to the fact sheet. The state wants DOE to provide public information sessions on WIPP matters quarterly.

The state agency wants increased federal surveillance of both oil and gas production wells and saltwater disposal wells operating around the WIPP perimeter. The Carlsbad area is located within the Permian Basin, a traditional hot spot for oil and natural gas exploration, which spans parts of Texas and New Mexico.

In its application to New Mexico, DOE has asked the state for permission to develop two new hazardous waste disposal units, commonly known as Panels 11 and 12.

The DOE disposal site received its first hazardous waste facility permit from the state in 1999 to dispose of transuranic mixed waste containers 2,150 feet below ground.

The permit was last renewed and issued on Nov. 30, 2010 and became effective 30 days later on Dec. 30, 2010, according to the New Mexico fact sheet. The permittees currently operate WIPP under an expired permit that is administratively extended until a new operating permit is issued.

The current prime contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership, an Amentum-BWX Technologies team, will be replaced by Bechtel National in mid-February. 


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