A state regulator is asking a government watchdog to look into his concerns about how federal agencies are managing nuclear waste in New Mexico, with the hope it will spur greater congressional oversight.
State Environment Secretary James Kenney wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office, asking it to examine how the U.S. Department of Energy is managing nuclear waste in the state, including at the underground storage site in Southern New Mexico, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
His concerns expressed in the December letter include WIPP taking significantly more shipments from Idaho than from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Energy Department revising its guidelines to allow other types of material to be placed at WIPP than originally intended.
WIPP was built in 1999 as a repository for transuranic waste — which is mostly contaminated gloves, clothing, equipment, soil and other items — but federal waste managers are eyeing it to dispose of diluted plutonium.
Kenney sent the letter in response to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce writing to the GAO on Dec. 2, asking it to review the Energy Department’s environmental management branch to assess the problems affecting its ability to “reduce its environmental liabilities.”
Kenney said Monday he wanted to point out New Mexico’s specific problems to the GAO, with the hope the watchdog would recommend Congress get more involved.
“New Mexico’s issues are national issues,” Kenney said. “We want to assist Congress in executing its effective oversight because DOE facilities in New Mexico need additional oversight.”
Kenney said he’s troubled by the federal agency’s lack of coordination with him.
In 2019, the agency struck an agreement with Idaho to have 55 percent of the waste going to WIPP come from that state. Kenney said he didn’t learn of that deal until 24 hours before the agency released it to the media.
“I, as the secretary of the Environment Department, need to be the most informed person about what DOE plans to send to WIPP before they talk to any other state about what could go to WIPP,” Kenney said.
Kenney objected to the arrangement itself, saying New Mexico and others must worry whether the remaining 45 percent of WIPP’s capacity will be enough.
Federal officials also have suggested reclassifying a high-level liquid waste as a solid waste simply to meet WIPP permit requirements, Kenney said.
An Energy Department spokeswoman wrote in an email the agency takes seriously its responsibility for safely cleaning up transuranic waste at the sites where it’s generated and the timely disposal of newly generated waste.
Shipments are prioritized according to the availability of certified waste that meets WIPP’s strict acceptance criteria, according to the statement.
“DOE will continue its efforts toward transparency while strongly encouraging community engagement at all public meetings, including those hosted by various DOE entities throughout the state of New Mexico,” the spokeswoman wrote.
But activists have complained the agency has not been forthcoming about its plans to ship plutonium through the Santa Fe area.
The agency issued a notice of intent in December to begin the process for an environmental impact statement as an early step toward diluting and disposing of plutonium left over from the Cold War.
The notice hints “downblending” the plutonium would be necessary to reduce radioactivity enough for the waste to be accepted at WIPP.
Opponents’ main concern is that 26 metric tons of cast-off plutonium bomb cores at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, would be sent to the Los Alamos lab, where it would be turned into an oxide powder.
The powder would be shipped to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where it would be further diluted before returning to New Mexico for disposal at WIPP.
That would mean a more hazardous substance than transuranic waste would be transported twice on N.M. 599 and U.S. 84/285.
Kenney referred to the dilute-and-dispose project in the letter.
He said Monday the Energy Department must engage better with the public, especially on such contentious issues. He also was concerned about the modified plutonium going to WIPP.
The letter also mentions the state suing the Energy Department last year on claims it failed to adequately clean up the lab’s legacy waste generated before 1999.
The lawsuit seeks to dissolve the 2016 agreement between the federal government and the state — known as a consent order — for cleaning up the old waste, arguing it’s too lax.
Last year, the lab sent 32 shipments of legacy waste to WIPP and 56 shipments of newer waste, according to agency data.
Kenney contends it should be removing much more legacy waste more quickly and be further along with the overall cleanup. Having old waste sitting around in containers or buried in the ground can cause additional hazards, Kenney said.
Federal waste managers should be spending every dollar Congress allocates for cleanup, with nothing left over at the end of a year, Kenney said, arguing that’s how to measure whether an agency is doing all it can.
“If you have the budget, use it,” he said.