A controversial project to build a new air intake shaft at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear repository near Carlsbad will resume after the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) gave its approval.
The utility shaft project was halted in November 2020 after NMED denied renewal of a temporary authorization (TA) for construction, citing a rise at the time in COVID-19 infections at the WIPP site.
The TA allowed for some work on the shaft ahead of its full approval, but on Oct. 27, NMED approved a permit modification request (PMR) from the U.S. Department of Energy to build and use the shaft.
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Estimated to cost about $100 million, the shaft would draw air into the site as a key aspect of a larger rebuild of WIPP’s ventilation system.
It would be joined in the rebuild by the ongoing Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS) project, a series of air filters that would filter air drawn in by the shaft and expel it into the air.
That project was expected to be completed in 2025, per the latest estimate, and would increase WIPP’s available air flow to 540,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm), more than triple the currently available 170,000 cfm of air.
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This will allow maintenance, mining and waste emplacement operations to occur simultaneously.
WIPP officials hoped this added airflow would strengthen the site’s ability to time waste emplacement with mining new space for waste, hoping to fill the seventh disposal panel as the eighth panel becomes available to accept waste.
In the notice of approval for the PMR for the utility shaft, NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said more airflow was needed at WIPP to achieve its mission after a 2014 accidental radiological release, in which a mispackaged waste drum ruptured, contaminated parts of the underground and reduce air available to workers.
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“Consequently, the WIPP facility ventilation system can accommodate only a small percentage of the original design airflow, and even with the addition of the New Filter Building, full scale mining is not possible,” Kenney wrote.
“The addition of the new shaft and associated connecting drifts will upgrade the underground ventilation system and will restore full-scale concurrent, unfiltered mining, maintenance, and continuously filtered waste emplacement operations as originally permitted.”
Donavan Mager, spokesman for Nuclear Waste Partnership – the primary operations contractor at WIPP – said it was unclear yet when construction would resume and be completed as planning was to resume with subcontractor Harrison Western-Shaft Sinkers.
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Harrison was awarded a $75 million contract to sink the shaft in 2019. When complete it will reach a depth of about 2,275 feet and will include two access drifts to connect the shaft with the rest of the WIPP underground.
“The Department appreciates the New Mexico Environment Department’s diligence in reviewing and approving the requested modification to the WIPP permit. This modification will enable continued excavation of WIPP’s fifth ventilation shaft as well as the mining of connecting drifts,” Mager said in a statement.
“Discussions with the construction subcontractor are underway to determine when work on the shaft will resume.”
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The utility shaft project saw intense criticism from environmental and government watchdog groups which argued it was part of a larger plan to expand WIPP beyond its presently permitted mission of emplacing 6.2 million cubic feet of waste.
That would take an act of the U.S. Congress to increase the volume of waste permitted for disposal at WIPP, and was not a present priority at the site, officials said.
The DOE is seeking a separate permit modification to allow the mining and use of two additional panels officials said where needed to replace space lost in the 2014 and would not increase WIPP’s maximum volume.
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Still, in public comments submitted to NMED ahead of the utility shaft’s approval, opponents of the project voiced their concerns the project could lead to further expansions of the facility.
“The New Shaft is an integral part of the DOE’s expansion plan for WIPP,” wrote Virginia Necochea, executive director at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “That plan violates existing volume and time limits for WIPP set in federal law, state agreements, the WIPP Permit, and DOE’s decades-old social contract with New Mexicans.”
She argued the DOE must present its entire alleged plan to expand WIPP to the public, rather than publicizing one step at a time such as with the utility shaft.
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“We object to NMED’s refusal to explain the true purpose of the shaft in their required notification documents for the public,” Necochea wrote. “In order to provide informed public comments, the public must be able to review DOE’s entire plan.”
The project was supported by local government leaders in New Mexico who defended WIPP, a major employer in the community, and argued the shaft was needed to improve safety for workers at the facility.
Letters of support for the shaft were filed with NMED from members of the Carlsbad City Council, the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce and local business owners.
“The men and women working in the WIPP underground are my top priority, and they have told me they support this project,” wrote Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway in a letter of support for the project. “WIPP does not have a restriction on its footprint as long as it is confined to the 16 square miles of withdrawn land. This is not a relevant reason for rejection.
“The NMED is right not to apply speculation to its permitting process.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.