WIPP: Volume tracking change approved by Environment Department

Change will increase capacity at WIPP, keep it open longer

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus
  • Waste was counted by the volume of the outermost container
  • Now it is to be counted by the inner most container
  • Supporters say air was incorrectly being counted as waste
  • Opposition argue the modification violates federal law
A worker looks on at a tank of nuclear waste in one of WIPP's underground passages.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is starting the new year with more capacity for disposing nuclear waste.

The controversial proposal to alter how the volume of nuclear waste emplaced at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is tracked was approved on Dec. 21 by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED).

The change allows waste to be tracked by counting the inner-most container holding waste, as opposed to the volume of the outer container used to secure the drums.

In altering WIPP’s permit, the underground nuclear waste repository is only a third full, holding about 65,000 cubic meters (m3) toward the facility’s maximum capacity of 175,565 m3 as stipulated by the federal Land Withdrawal Act (LWA).

Under the previous method, WIPP held about 92,000 m3.

MORE:Air counted as waste? WIPP to adjust tracking of emplacement volumes

WIPP officials commended the move as furthering the plant’s mission of disposing of nuclear waste generated across the county during the Cold War.  

“The permittees would like to thank both NMED and the wide range of stakeholders for their involvement in this process, resulting in the approval of the requested modification related to recording TRU waste volumes disposed,” said Donavan Mager, spokesman for Nuclear Waste Partnership – the contractor hired by the U.S. Department of Energy to oversee daily WIPP operations.

Drums of transuranic nuclear waste are emplaced in packs of seven at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

“The NMED review was thorough and resulted in a permit modification that allows WIPP to meet its mission needs while still being fully compliant with the State-issued hazardous waste permit. We look forward to continue working with NMED and stakeholders to fulfill our nuclear cleanup mission while protecting human health and the environment.

In his order issued just weeks before leaving office, New Mexico Secretary of the Environment Butch Tongate said numerous public comments and meeting were held and NMED determined the permit modification was acceptable.

MORE:WIPP to shutdown for maintenance in January, construction projects ongoing

The permit modification request (PMR) was elevated earlier this year from Class 2 to Class 3, bringing more requirements for public engagement and studies of the impact of the change.

Tongate said NMED’s Hazardous Waste Bureau generally supported the PMR but made several modifications before approving to ensure WIPP remained compliant with federal and state law.

“As found in both written and oral testimony, the Bureau generally supported the PMR, but rejected certain requested modifications and added others to ensure that the Permit contained all necessary components,” Tongate wrote.

MORE:WIPP moves forward with infrastructure upgrades a year after reopening

But the PMR was opposed by several activist and watchdog groups throughout New Mexico.

Don Hancock, director the Nuclear Waste Program at the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center said not only was the PMR illegal, but the very concept was flawed.

He said air between the inner and outer waste containers should be counted as waste, as it is often contaminated by radiation or volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

A map of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant's underground mine where nuclear waste is permanently stored.

“Air is waste. It has to be counted,” Hancock said. “The (U.S. Department of Energy) has been intentionally misleading about what’s going on here. Air that is contaminated with VOCs is regulated.”

Hancock said the Southwest Research and Information Center planned to file an appeal to the New Mexico Court of Appeals by mid-January and expects the permit modification to be overturned.

MORE:WIPP Worldwide: Italian researcher studies plant growth in the underground

“It was the rushed decision that we were expecting,” he said. “We feel like it was the wrong decision because it is in-compliant with federal law. It’s a change in decades of procedures. We will challenge it, and we expect it to be overturned.”

Furthermore, Hancock argued that the LWA only stipulates one method of counting waste as it has for more than 20 years, and any change to federal law must be approved by Congress.

Don Hancock asks representatives of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to consider the repercussion of allowing the construction of a spent nuclear fuel rod interim storage facility near Carlsbad, N.M. during a scoping meeting May 3.

Hancock said the intention of the DOE is for WIPP to operate at a larger scale and for longer than initially intended and agreed upon.

“They want to have a bigger facility, that has more waste and operates for longer,” he said. “They’re violating not only the letter, but the intent of the law.”

MORE:DOE proposes reclassifying high-level nuclear waste, could send more to WIPP

Santa Fe-based Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety argued that the PMR gives the DOE too much control over how much waste is disposed of at WIPP, and thus how long the facility will stay open.

“Instead of counting the overpack volume, the Environment Department decision allows DOE to count the volume as it desires,” read a news release from the organization. “Under the approved modification, the Environment Department has given up its regulatory authority to DOE to say when WIPP must be closed.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.