Officials at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant say an expansion will enable it to take radioactive waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other sources into the foreseeable future, even as critics contend the underground disposal site will run out of room.

WIPP has the capacity to take the lab’s old legacy waste from the Cold War and new waste generated from current lab projects, especially as a new set of storage chambers is being mined, Reinhard Knerr, Carlsbad field office manager, told the legislative Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee on Wednesday.

Knerr said he doesn’t foresee giving the lab’s old or new waste a higher priority because placing both at a site that’s more than 2,000 feet underground makes them safer.

“A waste container, whether it’s from one side of the [lab’s] facility or the other, is still a reduction of risk,” Knerr said at the virtual hearing.

Work has begun on WIPP’s eighth “panel” consisting of eight underground chambers, each of which is 13 feet high, 33 feet wide and 300 feet long. Waste containers eventually are buried in salt deposits.

The newest panel is being mined as WIPP seeks to renew its state hazardous waste permit for another 10 years. A state Environment Department official said it is under review.

One watchdog group argued that federal agencies are treating WIPP as if it has unlimited space, eliminating the need to create other waste disposal sites.

“As a pilot plant, WIPP was supposed to be the first of multiple repositories,” said Don Hancock, director of nuclear waste safety for the nonprofit Southwest Research and Information Center.

Plans to expand WIPP and not develop other disposal sites run contrary to the nation’s need for the full repository program envisioned decades ago, Hancock said. He disagreed with Knerr, arguing that WIPP will run out of space far sooner than officials say.

Most of the spent commercial nuclear waste is from the eastern U.S., so another disposal site should be built on that side of the country, Hancock said.

WIPP receives radioactive material not only from the lab in Los Alamos but from out-of-state sources such as the Idaho National Laboratory and the decommissioned Hanford Site. If Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina produce a combined 80 nuclear warhead triggers a year, as planned by 2030, the new waste will go to WIPP.

As of early October, WIPP had received 178 waste shipments this year, with about 45 coming from the Los Alamos lab. Knerr noted that more than half of the shipments came from the Idaho lab.

Five of the Los Alamos shipments were legacy waste and the rest were new waste.

Next year, WIPP is scheduled to take 215 waste shipments, 35 of which would be from Los Alamos, Knerr said.

State Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, called the local lab’s portion too small.

“How does the Department of Energy justify that in light that we have two national defense laboratories in the state of New Mexico?” Chandler said.

Chandler asked whether a provision could be added to WIPP’s proposed 10-year permit renewal to collect a higher quantity of Los Alamos’ waste.

Knerr said he didn’t understand why that should be a regulatory requirement.

Chandler replied, “Since we are the repository, our waste should get a higher priority so the citizens of New Mexico are getting a greater value for the burden they’ve accepted for allowing this facility to operate.”

The new panel being built at WIPP includes a ventilation shaft. The permit application for the shaft drew 291 public comments.

Hancock said almost all of the comments were against WIPP’s expansion.

When WIPP opened in 1999, it was only supposed to operate for 25 years, Hancock said. The new construction underscores federal agencies’ plans to keep the facility going to 2080 and perhaps beyond, he said.

“They should maintain the historic volume and time limits in the permit,” Hancock. “So DOE and Congress must now start identifying repositories in other states for waste that’s not part of the WIPP mission.”

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