Nuclear waste managers at a repository near Carlsbad said they plan to increase shipments of waste accepted by the facility to 17 by next year from sites across the country, despite criticism the site was being kept open longer than was initially agreed upon.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, located about 26 miles east of Carlsbad disposes of transuranic (TRU) waste, made up of irradiated clothing and equipment, from nuclear facilities owned by the U.S. Department of Energy.
During a community forum held Thursday in Santa Fe and broadcast virtually, officials from the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO) and WIPP’s primary operations contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership detailed ongoing plans at the site to continue to emplace waste in its underground salt deposit, potentially for decades to come, while updating its infrastructure such as for underground air ventilation.
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They also addressed ongoing work at the DOE to renew WIPP’s 10-year permit with the State of New Mexico and select a new primary operations contractor at the site.
The forum broke out into one-on-one meetings following the initial presentation, allowing attendees to speak directly with WIPP officials. This part of the forum was not broadcast publicly, and no public comments were made verbally during the broadcasted portion.
It became tense at times as WIPP critics from the Santa Fe area and around New Mexico questioned the format.
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Attendees were also critical of plans to keep WIPP open beyond 2024 – the closure year prescribed in WIPP’s past permit with the New Mexico Environment Department.
The DOE’s renewal application submitted in 2020 removed that closure date, and officials said the facility could legally be kept open until its prescribed capacity under federal law of 6.2 million cubic feet of waste was fulfilled.
In written comments submitted via Zoom, attended argued the open-ended timeline of the facility would put New Mexico at undue risk.
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Joan Brown, with New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light wrote that plans to bring more waste to New Mexico via the WIPP site amounted to “colonization” as the state was being used as a “sacrifice zone,” she said, for the nuclear industry and federal government’s activities.
“The government has a long history of breaking promises that are sacred trusts,” she wrote. “Our Indigenous brothers and sisters know this well. Colonization continues through this process to bring all nuclear waste to New Mexico after people of this state were promised that the current WIPP site would be it.”
CBFO Manager Reinhard Knerr said TRU waste could continue to be emplaced at WIPP through 2080, and the site could eventually take in 20 shipments per week.
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But for now, Knerr said WIPP was accepting about 10 shipments weekly, and was expected to reach 17 a week by April or May of 2023. About 300 shipments were expected to be brought in this year, he said.
Other concerns were voiced for a recent project to dispose of diluted surplus plutonium that opponents said could endanger New Mexicans as the waste crosses through the state multiple times.
The project would see the plutonium shipped to Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico from out of state for processing, then to Savanah River Site in South Carolina for additional packaging before being sent back to New Mexico for disposal at WIPP.
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It’s a collaboration between WIPP and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and Knerr said the material would be out of WIPP’s purview until it leaves Savanah River, coming through southeast New Mexico to the site for emplacement.
“There’s been a lot of concerns about transportation near Santa Fe,” he said. “The dilute and dispose waste, from a WIPP perspective, comes through Eunice. As for an NNSA mission, that’s not something I can speak to.”
More space needed for nuclear waste disposal
Knerr did explain that plans to mine additional panels included in the permit were needed to replace space lost to contamination after an accidental radiological release in 2014 that led to a three-year pause of WIPP’s emplacement and mining operations.
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WIPP’s seventh disposal panel is almost full, and it was expected the transition to Panel 8 – the final permitted pane – would occur by the end of August.
Panels typically take about two and a half years to be filled.
“We will need some additional panels to support continued emplacement of TRU waste,” Knerr said. “Some of the panels are replacement panels. We lost some space due to contamination.”
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WIPP was prioritizing shipments from within New Mexico, Knerr said, amid recent pressure from state officials, and was presently accepting about two shipments from Los Alamos National Laboratory a week.
“We anticipate continuing to take in those shipments from Los Alamos as waste is generated,” Knerr said. “There is a little bit of an eb and flow of the waste availability.”
To be able to increase waste emplacement while mining new space to hold the waste Nuclear Waste Partnership President Sean Dunagan said a rebuild of WIPP’s ventilation system known as the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS) was essential to increase available underground airflow.
It was expected to be complete in 2026, at a cost of about $494 million, and increase available air in the underground from about 170,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm) to 540,000 cfm.
Dunagan said the project was 63 percent complete. “We will have plenty of air to do all of the activities we do in the underground,” he said.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.