More underground space is needed to complete the mission at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to dispose of nuclear waste, contend WIPP officials during a Monday public meeting.
The U.S. Department of Energy was underway with a permit modification request (PMR) that would amend the DOE’s permit with the State of New Mexico to allow for the mining of two new panels where waste would be disposed of along with drifts connecting the panels to the rest of the underground repository.
At WIPP, transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste consisting of clothing items and equipment irradiated during nuclear activities at DOE sites across the country is disposed of via burying in an underground salt deposit.
To achieve this, panels consisting of seven rooms each are mined about 2,000 feet underground where drums of the waste are emplaced, and the salt gradually collapses to permanently entomb the waste.
But due maintenance issues and a three-year shutdown of underground operations in 2014 following an accidental radiological release, portions of three of panels were left unusable and the DOE hoped to mine new panels to finishing burying the waste.
In total, records show the space of about 1.7 panels was lost over the years, and DOE officials contended the new panels would not constitute an expansion of WIPP but a replacement of the space needed to finishing disposing of 6.2 million cubic feet of TRU waste as prescribed by federal law.
Rick Chavez, manager of Regulatory Environmental Services – a DOE-hired firm that oversees the facility’s permitting compliance – said the new panels would be almost the same dimensions as past panels and just as safe for workers.
“This modification is needed to add description information to the permit and update applicable figures and tables regarding construction of hazardous waste disposal units,” he said during the meeting. “The text changes and other modifications in this PMR do not reduce the ability of the permitees to provide continued protection of human health and the environment.”
The DOE planned to publish a public notice of the PMR, followed by a 60-day public comment period and hearing in September, Chavez said.
Meanwhile, a 10-year renewal of the permit itself was underway after expiring last year and Don Hancock, nuclear waste program manager at watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center said any modifications to the permit should be included in the full renewal or wait until after its approval.
He said the DOE aimed to “piecemeal” an expansion of WIPP operations and its lifetime to avoid a discussion on broadening the facility’s purpose and keeping it operational indefinitely.
The current permit called for WIPP to be closed by 2024, but officials speculated it could take as long as until 2050 to complete its mission.
Hancock said that before new panels can be mined and used, the public was entitled to a broader discussion on the future of WIPP.
“They don’t want to talk about expansion,” Hancock said. “There will be overwhelming opposition to replacement panels because it’s part of expansion. They’ve provided no basis to delay the renewable application besides that they want to delay discussion of the expansion.”
The need to replace panels at all was due to “mismanagement” Hancock said, by the DOE of the space originally granted for the WIPP project.
He said adding more space to WIPP would go beyond what the public agreed to when the facility was first built and operated.
“At a minimum, it’s a violation of the social contract with the people of New Mexico,” Hancock said. “You need to have discussion with State officials and the public about it.”
Instead of replacing space and attempting to meet WIPP’s capacity despite the lost space, Hancock argued the DOE should being siting and developing additional repositories potentially in other states.
“DOE should be moving forward with trying to find additional repositories,” Hancock sad. “They have no move. That’s not okay. A pilot plant does not mean the only facility. There has always been concern that WIPP would be the only repository.
“DOE lost the capacity. Not the people of New Mexico, not the regulators. That’s not the public’s fault.”
John Heaton, chair of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force said the initial 2024 closure date was merely an estimate of when WIPP’s capacity would be met.
He said there were no limits placed on the space, number of panels or time needed to emplace the amount of waste initially agreed upon at WIPP.
“There is no date of conclusion of WIPP,” Heaton said. “Nothing was written in stone. It was an estimate. It just depends on when the capacity is met. There is no limit to the amount of space and number of panels that can be used in the WIPP site.”
Heaton argued the potential for more panels was always present at WIPP, as higher-level remote-handled (RH) TRU waste could be emplaced and might need to be in a separate area from the lower-level contact handled (CH) waste presently being emplaced, as RH canisters must be lined with lead and other materials to prevent exposure to higher levels of radiation.
RH waste was shipped to WIPP last year from Sandia National Laboratory in shielded container assemblies (SCAs) that allow RH waste to be shipped in containers designed for CH waste, but no RH canisters were shipped to WIPP or emplaced since 2014.
He said there could ultimately be as many as four more panels added to the WIPP underground in the coming years.
“This is a reasonable approach to providing more panels. There are a lot of discussions on how many more will be needed,” Heaton said. “To fulfill the mission, WIPP has to have more panels. It’s really not an expansion of WIPP, it is the needed space for emplacement to fulfill the mission.”
And Heaton said work on the new panels needs to begin soon as the facility prepares to being emplacing waste in its eighth panel.
Panels generally take about two to three years to fill up once emplacement begins, and Heaton said filling of Panel 8 must occur as the new panels become available to avoid a backup in shipments.
“It’s not good to have a break between Panel 8 being full and the others being ready to go,” he said. “It’s important it gets done in advance.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.