Nuke Repository

State regulators tour the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad in 2016.

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.

(8) comments

Andy Gold

Mr Hopf.

Why do you lie. Wasn’t there an explosion at this dump just a few years back with a release ofradiation through a faulty vent system.

Hardly a negligible risk.

And what was the cost of the clean up? And what is the cost of this disposal of some of the most poisonous man made materials? Who subsidizes that. More money going into a energy program that is far and away too costly to run. All these funds should be going into renewables and energy conservation.

Chris Phillips

Andy Gold

It is not that he is lying, merely that he operates on small tidbits of information that aren't necessarily the facts.

"has never has any measurable public health impact,"

I am 99% sure i remember reading about in 2010 the cancer rates being higher near nuclear facilities. High energy beamed into that ground?

Nah nothings wrong.

The whole thing is a diffusion nightmare. We pulled this radioactive stuff from the ground, process it and stuff in back into the ground when done. Broke dozens of ecosystem macro and micro just to get it.

James Hopf

I have to admit that I simply don't get most of this. The purpose of WIPP was to be the disposal site for all US transuranic waste (mainly from the weapons program). There were never any plans for additional sites. There is also no technical need for more sites, since WIPP can be expanded as necessary. The economic cost and political effort required for a 2nd site would be orders of magnitude larger than any associated with simply expanding WIPP. Also, there are no real technical issues with expanding WIPP. If anything, having multiple sites would increase overall public health risks (although they will be negligible no matter what we do). I confess I don't know what the agenda is for these "environmental" groups. This won't do anything to stop nuclear power, and the volume of defense waste is essentially fixed. How does blocking final disposal solutions for our (fixed) pile of defense waste help anything? And why does the article spend all its time quoting non-expert, agenda-driven anti-nuclear groups? Finally, I just have to end by wondering why there is so much hue and cry over negligible risks associated with WIPP, while a massive oil extraction industry, which poses environmental risks that are many orders of magnitude larger, is welcomed in the state with open arms?

Gene Presler

Cleanup our Hanford broken DOE promises. No more Plutonium Pits required for these war hawk numb skulls anywhere. Covid19 says move Green energy and get nuclear power, and DOE nuclear waste under tighter standards now.

James Hopf

Nuclear power?? Let me get this straight. US nuclear power, which has never killed a member of the public, has never has any measurable public health impact, and has no climate impact, needs tighter standards? Meanwhile, US fossil power generation still causes on the order of ~10,000 deaths *every year* and has a massive climate impact, does *not* need tighter standards?

The regulatory playing field is hopelessly unlevel (with absurdly strict nuclear regulations and extremely lax fossil regulations). The result has been millions of deaths (worldwide) due to fossil fuels being used in place of nuclear.

Dee Finney

This is insane, we have enough radioactive waste in our state. We cannot handle all the waste in the country. There needs to be an alternative waste site. There are 49 other states, let them share the burden.

Gene Presler

We agree. Thank you for your comment.

James Hopf

You have nothing to worry about. Rest assured, any increase in the volume of waste disposed of at WIPP will have no effect at all on your *perception* of the risk! (Actual risks are negligible, no one has ever been harmed.)

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