New Mexicans living along the roads on which nuclear waste is shipped from facilities throughout the U.S. to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant repository near Carlsbad expressed fears that an accident could expose their communities to radiation.
Such comments came during a Monday public forum held by the U.S. Department of Energy and DOE-hired contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) which manages and operates the WIPP site.
At the facility, transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste, made up of irradiated clothing, equipment and other debris, is sent via truck to the site in southeast New Mexico from DOE laboratories and other facilities around the country, and buried in a salt deposit about 2,000 feet underground.
This process of transporting the waste to WIPP, which began disposal operations in 2019, recently drew concern from residents in Santa Fe following the announcement of a plan to dispose of diluted surplus plutonium at the site.
This would involve shipping plutonium from Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina where it would be diluted before shipping back to New Mexico to the WIPP site.
The project would cause the waste to cross through New Mexico multiple times, a sticking point for Cindy Weehler with 285 All Alliance, an activist group based in Santa Fe, who said the proposal brought undue risk to her community and must be addressed by government officials.
Also troubling to Weehler, she said, was recent reports that WIPP could be open as long as until 2083, despite a closure date of 2024 being specified in the initial permit.
“The fact that WIPP is planning an increased footprint and needs 60 more years to complete its missions means it is planning for the surplus plutonium,” she said. “Therefore, it is a topic the DOE must explain to the public.”
The increased “footprint” Weehler referred to was a plan to add two new disposal panels to the site where waste is emplaced for disposal, characterized by DOE officials as replacement panels for space lost due to contamination.
Reinhard Knerr, manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office said WIPP was “not even halfway” toward its statutory capacity limit of 6.2 million cubic feet of waste.
The two additional panels were included in the DOE’s permit renewal application being considered by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) that would also remove the closure date and leave the timeline of WIPP’s operations open-ended.
Knerr said WIPP drivers have completed millions of loaded miles without incident, admitting a third of those miles were on New Mexico roads but confident WIPP can continue to operate safely.
“We certainly recognize that New Mexico is the host state,” Knerr said. “It certainly bares the bulk of the risk with regard to the transportation of waste in the state. Our drivers are very highly qualified. All of that helps ensure that the transportation of that material is kept safe.”
Despite the high level of attention WIPP officials said is dedicated to safety at the site, Teracita Keyanna, a member of the Red Water Road Pond community near Church Rock said during the meeting that WIPP’s timeline should be limited as its risk, she said, was becoming unacceptable with continued operations at the site.
She said her community already suffered under the impacts of uranium mining in northern New Mexico, and the WIPP site continued to pose an unfair radioactive risk to the state.
“With your whole expansion, it’s putting New Mexicans at risk but at the same time it was not really something that was discussed with other communities,” she said. “It’s something that I don’t feel like the state should be dealing with longer than it needs to.”
NWP President Sean Dunagan touted the facility’s safety record, pointing to the recent filling of WIPP’s seventh disposal panel, allowing workers to close off the area that was impacted by contamination after an accidental radiological release in 2014 which led to a three-year halt of WIPP’s primary operations.
As WIPP moves to the eighth- and final-permitted panel, Dunagan said personal protection equipment (PPE) would no longer be needed in the underground as it was during emplacement in Panel 7.
“This is a big milestone for us. Whenever we’re able to get out of there will be significant for the employees,” he said. “They will no longer have to wear the PPE when we start emplacing in Panel 8.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.