Environmental leaders with the State of New Mexico sought to added stricter conditions for the federal government to continue using a nuclear waste repository in Carlsbad, through the ongoing process to renew of the site’s permit to operate.
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) released a draft of the permit Dec. 20 that will govern operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for the next 10 years.
The release of the draft opened a 60-day period from Dec. 20 to Feb. 18, where the NMED will accept feedback and comments from the public on the proposed permit language.
A public meeting was likely to be held in summer 2023, with the final permit being approved by the end of next year.
Comments can be submitted online at NMED’s website, via email to Ricardo Maestas, WIPP group staff manager at [email protected] or via postal mail to Maestas at the NMED Hazardous Waste Bureau 2905 Rodeo Park Drive East Building 1, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
At the WIPP site, the U.S. Department of Energy disposes of transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste via burial in a salt deposit about 2,000 feet underground at the facility about 30 miles east of Carlsbad.
The site first began accepting waste in 1999, and today has taken in 13,193 shipments of waste from DOE sites around the country, records show.
But to continue operating for at least another 10 years, NMED added new conditions to the latest 10-year permit renewal, requiring the DOE to inventory all waste streams intended for disposal at WIPP, prioritizing nuclear waste from New Mexico facilities like Los Alamos National Laboratory and upholding WIPP’s present statutory capacity of 6.2 million cubic feet of waste regardless of any future Congressional action to extend that limit.
In an interview with the Current-Argus, NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said he hoped by shifting the DOE’s priority to dispose of waste it generated in New Mexico first, New Mexicans would get a better benefit for hosting the repository and the risks it brought.
He was critical of the DOE’s previous agreements with states like Idaho and South Carolina that resulted in more waste coming from those states than New Mexico.
“We want to make sure there’s accountability for all permittees, including for New Mexico’s waste which has clearly been devalued,” Kenney said. “This permit right sizes the management of DOE’s operations in New Mexico to allow for a priority for us.
“We’re closing the gap and increasing transparency.”
Kenney said he expected the WIPP site could remain open for the foreseeable future, as the need for waste disposal will continue in the U.S.
To continue operating, Kenney said the DOE must be able to account for how much waste is coming to WIPP and where its coming from, despite the Department’s recent statements that the repository could stay open as long as until 2080 based on potential future waste availability.
He also said the DOE needs to put more effort into finding a new repository after WIPP meets its specified capacity, as a provision was added to the draft permit that would revoke the permit should Congress enact legislation to increase that capacity.
“If Congress was in discussions talking about expanding the capacity, and we’ve not seen anything substantive from the DOE about siting a new repository, it would set up a situation where states including ours would have stranded waste,” Kenney said.
The draft permit also required quarterly public forums to allow the public to learn about and comment on WIPP operations, while requiring meetings be held for modifications to the permit.
“There will definitely be more opportunities for the public to participate,” said Maestas, NMED’s WIPP program manager.
Other provisions added to the permit required monthly surveillance reports from the DOE to NMED on oil and gas operations around WIPP as it is located within the Permian Basin – the U.S.’ most active oil field – along with language to describe two additional disposal panels under construction.
The added panels would not increase WIPP’s capacity under federal law, but would serve to replace space lost to contamination stemming from an accidental radiological release in 2014.
NMED also added terms in the permit giving the department the authority to suspend waste shipments to WIPP if there are allegations of a threat to public health or the environment, or any noncompliance with the permit, and added language requiring the DOE to provide analysis of the causes for any incident related to waste shipments.
“Before waste from this shipping container is disposed at the WIPP facility, the results of the causal analysis must determine no harm to human health and the environment will occur as a result,” read a fact sheet NMED published along with the draft permit.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.