Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Nuclear waste storage permit slated for September public meeting

A permit to renew the operating permit for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant will be the subject of a hybrid public meeting in late September, hosted by the New Mexico Environment Department.

The facility – called WIPP – is the nation’s only storage site for defense-related nuclear waste, located in a salt bed 26 miles outside of Carlsbad.

What happens at WIPP?

WIPP is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy, but it’s managed and operated by Salado Isolation Mining Contractors. That group, called SIMCO, is composed of Virginia-based Bechtel National Inc. – part of the engineering giant that has contracts with the federal government, including the prior operation of Los Alamos National Laboratory – and Los Alamos Technical Associates, another contractor.

The waste, stored 2,150 feet below ground, includes objects contaminated with elements heavier than uranium, mostly plutonium.

These objects include gloves, tools, rags, sludges, soils, and protective clothes. Lower-level waste barrels and boxes are stacked in the underground disposal rooms, according to WIPP’s website, and more radioactive waste casks are kept in boreholes in the walls.

WIPP operators say 96% of all waste disposed at WIPP is lower level, with a dosage rate of about 200 millirem per hour – a measure is how much radiation an object produces impacts a human body. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that’s equivalent radiation to a single procedure of a head CT scan.

The higher-level waste, which requires remote handling, can have a dose rate of 1,000 rem per hour, which is double a fatal exposure rate of 500 rem at once.

The meeting, which will be available remotely on WebEx or in-person in both Santa Fe and Carlsbad, will occur on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Public comment on renewing the permit will remain open until the Sept. 22 meeting. The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) plans to issue a final permit in October, which would go into effect in November, according to a press release.

NMED shares regulatory responsibility with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Only the EPA can oversee radiological portions of the site, however NMED inspects, oversees and addresses clean up at WIPP in the case of spills.

NMED published Tuesday a final proposed permit, a process that has taken years to resolve. The current permit expired in December 2020, and called for a closure of the plant in 2024. In the latest version of the renewal, the new permit is valid for 10 years from enactment.

WIPP contractors and NMED signed a settlement agreement, adding new provisions to the 1,200-page draft permit. One change included a permit revocation clause, if Congress increases the disposal limit, or allows for other types of waste at WIPP. The current maximum is 6.2 million cubic feet of waste.

WIPP contractors will also need to provide additional documentation, such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s progress on finding another site to store transuranic waste – meaning waste that’s heavier than uranium, often plutonium. WIPP will also be required to issue a report when the integrity of shipping containers are compromised.

WIPP is also required to develop a “community relations plan,” including three public meetings per year with at least 30 days of public notice.

While the permit does not establish a date of closure, it notes that the start of closure is when the site fills the facility to its capacity limit of 6.2 million cubic feet. 

“The Permittees also assume closure will take 10 years,” the permit said, adding that the time frame could “be extended or shortened.”

Post-closure care of the site would extend another three decades.



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