Federal officials say a new air shaft is needed at the nuclear waste disposal site in Southern New Mexico to keep workers safe and run more efficiently. 

But antinuclear watchdogs contend the real motive behind adding a shaft to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is to enable the underground site to expand and operate indefinitely. 

The U.S. Department of Energy seeks to modify WIPP's hazardous waste permit so it can build a fifth shaft the agency says is needed to boost ventilation, which was partially blocked in 2014 to contain fallout from a ruptured waste container that closed the facility for three years. 

The vent would cost an estimated $197 million and would take three to four years to finish. The state Environment Department scheduled hearings, which will run this week, to allow the public to comment and question officials. 

Ever since the 2014 incident, WIPP has lacked the underground air flow for crews to mine, do maintenance and bury waste simultaneously, said Robert Kehrman, a consultant for WIPP's contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, during a Monday hearing. 

"The proposed use of the new shaft is to provide ventilation air that will enhance the safety of the operators in the underground," Kehrman said. 

But critics argue a filter structure being installed at WIPP will supply ample ventilation for current operations and the new shaft is aimed at expanding the site's waste capacity to keep it going far beyond its original 2024 shutdown date. 

Robin Seydel, a regional organic grower, said the shaft is redundant, unless the purpose is to perpetuate WIPP's waste disposal. In a report, the Government Accountability Office called it a utility shaft, suggesting its purpose was not to improve ventilation, Seydel said. 

"Given that WIPP has still serious, outstanding safety issues, this new utility shaft — and I'm not calling it a ventilation shaft — must be denied," Seydel said. 

Kehrman insisted ventilation is impaired by having to filter air. Salty particulates that circulate from the underground beds get trapped in the filters, which then must be thrown away. 

But when Steve Zappe, who used to enforce WIPP's waste permit, grilled Kehrman about why both the shaft and a filter building would be needed, Kehrman had no answer. 

Environmental attorney Lindsay Lovejoy questioned Kehrman on the construction's timeline, noting it wouldn't be completed until after the current permit expires in 2024. He suggested it fits with plans to keep WIPP going. 

Kehrman said a proposed renewal would extend the facility to at least 2052. 

Dragging out WIPP's operations decades past the original 20-year agreement violates the social contract made with New Mexicans, said Scott Kovac, research and operations director for the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

WIPP is being equipped to take the waste that will be generated from production of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads, Kovac said. 

"It [WIPP] was never really suppose to do that," Kovac said.  

Michael Woodward, an attorney representing the U.S. Energy Department, said the purpose of the hearings is to delve into the merits of the air shaft, not to question WIPP's future as a nuclear repository. 

"This particular matter is not the correct place nor the correct time to debate the stakeholders' concerns about the potential expansion of the WIPP mission," Woodward said. 

(4) comments

Peter McCarthy

New Mexico highways will become awash in dangerous, cancer-causing still highly radioactive nuclear materials and our state, literally, the nuclear toilet of the country. WIPP has had fires, explosions, leaks and shutdowns and was not built for this potential onslaught of even more highly radioactive materials. I made a video to express my feelings at the public hearing:


It may still be possible to testify.

Mon. May 17th – Fri. May 21 – Virtual Public Hearing about Proposed Shaft for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). For more information in English and Spanish:

* NM Environment Department at https://www.env.nm.gov/hazardous-wast... (scroll down to March 10, 2021 entry),

* Stop Forever WIPP Coalition at:



* CCNS - Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety @


Sasha Pyle

Isn’t it wonderful to be told that WIPP’s future isn’t currently up for debate, when this unneeded shaft is another Trojan Horse, another broken agreement with New Mexicans and a dead giveaway that DOE has no intention of honoring its long-term agreements. After over 30 years of involvement with this ‘nuclear sacrifice zone’ and its potential impacts on public health and irreplaceable resources, I find this all numbingly predictable. Time for the State to stick up for its citizens, since the Feds clearly don’t care what happens to us. We’re just a poor state with a lot of minority inhabitants, after all.

Richard Johnson

It really comes down to what’s right and what’s wrong? DOE is obviously hiding the ball here. Everybody knows that the nuclear weapons government/industry is trying to conceal their planned expansion of WIPP by using an incremental approach. Inviting the public to comment on a permit modification for a 5th shaft while prohibiting questions about WIPP expansion plans nor addressing the need for a 5th shaft is insane.

I was a community activist and a vocal business against WIPP from 1988 – 1994. Members of the Santa Fe Community offered eloquent testimony at dozens of hearings back then. As many as 465 area business displayed window signs proclaiming to be “Another Business Against WIPP”.

Secretly we knew then that WIPP was not going to be stopped once the DOE had invested 1 billion dollars to construct the repository. All we could realistically hope to achieve was to make WIPP and WIPP-transportation as safe as possible by demanding that the federal government do the right thing, as well as obey the law.

Seeking permit modifications without a stated need cannot be allowed to be a stepping stone for disposal of the most toxic substance on the planet. Any plan to expand WIPP must be transparent and subject to public and scientific review. It is too important that we get this right. Everyone loses when we continue to give DOE a pass to violate state agreements and federal laws.

Jay Coghlan

If according to the Department of Energy this “is not the correct place nor the correct time to debate the stakeholders' concerns about the potential expansion of the WIPP mission,” exactly when is the right time?

DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has explicitly stated on legal record that half of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s future capacity is reserved for radioactive plutonium wastes from expanded plutonium “pit” bomb core production for speculative and very expensive new-design nuclear weapons. Yet NNSA has ignored a recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences to complete a programmatic environmental impact statement on future radioactive waste disposal. This is crucial given that DOE plans to cram everything it can down WIPP (for example, high level wastes it wants to reclassify and send from the Hanford nuclear reservation and 34 metric tons of “excess” plutonium).

Further, NNSA has denied the public its legal right to discuss future radioactive waste disposal related to expanded bomb production by refusing to conduct a new programmatic environmental impact statement on expanded plutonium pit production and a new site-wide environmental impact statement for the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The irony is that New Mexico is the only state for both plutonium pit production and a permanent radioactive waste dump (i.e., WIPP). Yet DOE prioritizes disposal of old bomb wastes in Idaho and South Carolina above New Mexico because those states compelled DOE into binding legal agreements to move the wastes. It is way past time for New Mexico to finally grow up and not allow itself to be the nuclear colony that DOE assumes it to be.

Jay Coghlan

Nuclear Watch New Mexico


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