The more than 20-year-old nuclear waste disposal site in Southern New Mexico would remain active for at least 60 more years under a proposed permit renewal, reflecting the role of nuclear weapons in the country’s Cold War past and what many federal leaders envision for the future.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s permit is set to expire in 2024, but federal officials who oversee the nation’s nuclear programs believe the underground repository near Carlsbad can keep taking radioactive waste for decades to come.
Critics contend WIPP, where the waste is buried in salt beds 2,150 feet underground, should not operate beyond the 25-year life that was planned when it opened in 1999.
They also argue WIPP is fast approaching its limit, and alternative disposal sites should be created outside New Mexico.
“It’s been clear to everybody that WIPP had a limited amount of waste it could handle,” said Don Hancock, director of nuclear waste safety for the nonprofit Southwest Research and Information Center.
Yet federal agencies submitted a proposal calling for a permit renewal until 2080, Hancock said. And the latest proposal gives no date for when the permit extension would end, he said.
“So it’s WIPP forever,” he said.
WIPP has the word “pilot” in its name, which means it was supposed to be the first nuclear waste disposal site, not the only one, Hancock said.
Officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees WIPP, did not provide answers Friday to questions about the site’s permitting, storage capacity and long-term future.
WIPP receives radioactive material from sources as varied as the decommissioned Hanford Site in Washington state and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The Los Alamos lab’s legacy waste generated during the Cold War and Manhattan Project is sent to WIPP. If the lab and Savannah River Site in South Carolina ramp up nuclear-core production as planned by 2030, the new waste will go to WIPP.
The Department of Energy also wants to use WIPP as one of the sites to store 34 metric tons of diluted plutonium waste. It’s unclear how much of the waste would go to WIPP.
The plan poses challenges, such as how to efficiently dilute the plutonium and how much storage space WIPP would have for the material, the National Academy of Sciences said in a 2018 report.
The 1992 Land Withdrawal Act limits WIPP to 6.2 million cubic feet of waste, or about 175,000 cubic meters.
It also restricts the storage to transuranic waste — from elements that have atomic numbers higher than uranium in the periodic table, primarily produced from recycling spent fuel or using plutonium to fabricate nuclear weapons. Taking in discarded plutonium would require Congress to amend the law, Hancock said.
Under the state’s hazardous waste permit for WIPP, the volume of material stored there is calculated according to the outer waste containers. Using that measure, the site is close to 60 percent full.
But the Energy Department persuaded the state Environment Department in 2018 to change the calculation so the empty headspace in the containers isn’t counted.
Then, three weeks before Republican Gov. Susana Martinez left office at the end of 2018, the agency revised the permit to allow the Energy Department greater leeway in estimating WIPP’s remaining capacity. That included letting federal officials deduct a container’s headspace.
The Energy Department, in turn, estimated WIPP had only used about 40 percent of its capacity.
Hancock’s group and two other watchdogs filed a legal challenge, contending the methodology was invalid. They argued the original calculations based on container size should be used.
They also hoped Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration would reverse the permit revision. But the administration has taken no action.
When the federal government got plans for WIPP rolling in the 1980s, New Mexicans agreed to create a disposal site for nuclear waste for a limited time as a patriotic duty, said Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, one of the groups suing the Energy Department.
The effort to push WIPP’s operation beyond the original 25-year timeline and expand its limited capacity is “an affront to the promises made to New Mexicans,” Arends said. “It’s irresponsible on their part to say WIPP is going to stay open in perpetuity,” she added.
She questioned how WIPP could keep going for 60 more years when it’s already half-full after 17 years of operation.
WIPP lost almost three years of operations after the so-called kitty litter incident in 2014. That was when a Los Alamos lab container packed with a volatile blend of organic cat litter and nitrate salts burst, causing radiation to leak through the underground site.
The contamination, which cost about $2 billion to clean up, led to part of WIPP being sealed off. Crews are having to dig out more space in the salt beds to put waste containers, Arends said, so its footprint is growing.
There are also environmental concerns about disposing of massive nuclear waste at WIPP, she said. For instance, the waste, while embedded in the salt beds, could leach into subterranean clay seams linked to the Pecos River.
The Pecos connects to the Rio Grande, a source of drinking water in the region, she said.
“WIPP — it’s a complicated issue,” Arends said.