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.

(20) comments

Maria Thomas

Thank you to Scott Wyland , journalist, for shining a light on this. And Thank you to Secretary Kenney for asking for more govt transparency in the matter.

Ann Maes

Good grief! Lets take care of WIPP first!

Jay Coghlan

New Mexicans should be aware that more than half of WIPP’s future capacity is being reserved for future radioactive wastes from production of plutonium pit cores for new-design nuclear weapons for the new nuclear arms race. Those wastes are classified as transuranic or TRU wastes.

To quote the National Nuclear Security Administration, “The combined TRU waste generated over 50 years would be 57,550 m3 [cubic meters], which would account for 53 percent of the projected available capacity at WIPP. In addition, use of WIPP capacity for national security missions such as pit production would be given priority in the allocation process.” See https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2020/01/f70/final-supplement-analysis-eis-0236-s4-sa-02-complex-transformation-12-2019.pdf, page 65.

So much for WIPP’s “cleanup” mission. And how convenient for NNSA to have the plutonium waste producer (LANL) and the plutonium waste dump (WIPP) all in the same nuclear colony (New Mexico).

Hurrah for Secretary Kenney and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) for beginning to fight back. May they fight even harder in the future and deny the many Department of Energy proposals to expand WIPP.

Jay Coghlan

Nuclear Watch New Mexico

www.nukewatch.org

Francisco Carbajal

Thank you, Jay Coghlan for a good response to this specific article. Yes, I do agree with your assessment and subject matter expertise relating to supporting the efforts that the NMED and Cabinet Secretary Kenny are trying to protect New Mexico from the tyrant's DOE and NNSA proposals. The public safety, health and welfare for all New Mexicans should be the primary goal for keeping our diverse communities safe and from being taken advantage by the DOE, NSSA, NRC, WIPP, LANL, etc. Regard-less if the radioactive or nuclear material is waste or classified as transuranic or TRU wastes, I strongly believe New Mexico is not prepared to handle any type of emergency management response, specialized training, and core-capabilities relating to a radiological or nuclear accident of any magnitude. Yes, we may have the U.S. Homeland Security resources from the DOD such as the CBRNE Units from the military, but from a local, tribal, and state emergency management response capability, we are barely visible to the nuclear industry eyes or not even on their radar, period! Apparently, they are just waiting for the catastrophe event to occur and then, what are they going to do to mitigate the radioactive/nuclear release into the general public? Some local emergency managers in NM think they got this on-check and are in ready-state. Wish-full thinking and too much dreaming going on.

Cynthia Weehler

Good points, Francisco. The Santa Fe County Emergency Management Program has not been informed by DOE of the changes it is planning, and so has no procedures in place for the new mission, if it occurs.

Francisco Carbajal

Cynthia, thank you for a positive response. On the same note, I don't think the DOE will ever notify any of the local, tribal, and state Emergency Management Departments in NM about any of their operational mission changes (nuclear/radioactive waste) and their secret WIPP transportation plans, period! The DOE, NRC, and the Private Nuclear Industry in NM does not know on how to be truthful with public safety, health and welfare of the communities. Each day, they are adversely impacting us with the dangerous nuclear/radioactive material which is being transported on our Interstate Highways and along our indigenous communities to the North of the State-lines. But our local, tribal, and state governments are not challenging the DOE, NRC, LANL, SANDA, etc., because they are afraid to ruffle the economic benefit perspective and monetary gains that each receive every fiscal year from federal government.

Ann Maes

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Dennis McQuillan

DOE has a four-decade history of breaking commitments to the State of New Mexico, failing to address safety issues, disregarding local concerns, and acting without public transparency on both LANL cleanup and WIPP. DOE’s continuing bad faith in these matters is evident in NMED’s December 22, 2021 letter to the GAO. The political and technical problems on these DOE environmental issues are largely self-inflicted. Their missions would go more smoothly if they would scrub the remnants of Cold-War arrogance and work with New Mexico in good faith. In the meantime, the citizens of New Mexico should support Secretary Kenney and NMED in their efforts to hold DOE accountable.

Cynthia Weehler

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Roger Taylor

While this is a welcome step by Sec NMED Kenney it needs to be re-emphasized that what DOE is proposing (and already underway without official approval by the Gov of NM) is in violation of the existing WIPP agreement between the Fed gov't and the Gov't of NM. Our state gov't is pushing new industries, especially green ones like solar & wind, to replace a pared down dependence on oil & gas. Continued & expanded nuclear waste storage & plutonium pit production is a direct contradiction. And the assumption that we need more nuclear weapons - or upgraded weapons - never changes the dynamic that perhaps we should be reducing and/or eliminating these world life-destroying horrors.

Cynthia Weehler

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Lynn k Allen

Thank you Mr Kenney. Thank you for being good at your job and trying to protect us. Thank you. So many snakes in the Federal government it's hard to keep up. Please demand response and credible explanation for their actions and lack of communication to you & us. Please keep this in the news.

Greg Mello

While Kenney's concerns about removal of legacy waste are valid and important, those concerns -- and this article -- are examples of what happens when NM regulators, under direction by the Governor, want LANL to be the nation's center for plutonium but then cry in pain when they have to deal with the waste. Why in the world would NMED think that they can turn a blind eye to LANL's $18 billion plutonium pit mission, which they have consistently done while ignoring federal environmental law that gives them real leverage to affect that mission, while at the same time avoiding increased shipment of plutonium, or the dramatic slowdown of legacy waste removal? The Governor's idea -- and that of the activists -- seems to be to secretly applaud nuclear weapons manufacturing in New Mexico and for sure do nothing to impede it, but try to draw the line on helping dispose of surplus plutonium. "Plutonium processing and manufacturing for nuclear weapons is good, but processing plutonium for permanent disposal is bad," goes the thinking. In actuality, LANL is a poor site and institution for ALL industrial plutonium missions -- and neither are necessary to achieve their respective program goals. Both are unnecessary programs ginned up to support the contractors. There are simpler solutions that are really better in all respects, but they won't generate an endless combined stream of two or three billion dollars annually. Please understand that huge upgrades and additions in plutonium infrastructure and staffing can serve either or both missions. This article says "a more hazardous substance than transuranic waste would be transported twice on N.M. 599 and U.S. 84/285." That's incorrect. It's more of the same kind of waste. There is also an assumption that this transportation is dangerous. Where is the data to support that thesis? Let me help. There is none. Yes it's ugly, and yes the convoys have enormous latitude in the use of force. They are traveling "non-Constitutional zones." It seems that some people don't want their idyllic myths busted. I don't blame them, and if the shock of seeing armed convoys going by one's doorstep for the first time is a wake-up to the broader picture, then that's great. Just understand that what Kenney and the Governor and the antinuclear activists are not opposing is the total nuclear colonization of Santa Fe and northern New Mexico. Get real, dear friends. And why is this hypercolonialization happening? In part because Kenney and his predecessors, and of course the Governor, have not done their job well enough. Money talks, and people and the environment suffer. NNSA and LANL understand that they have a welcome mat in New Mexico for the dirtiest nuclear weapons production job there is. The Governor is ________ (you fill in the word) to think this is somehow beneficial to the state. LANL senior management told me a long time ago that LANL would become "the dirty lab," with cleaner, more scientific missions going elsewhere. That reality is coming in spades, with no investigation by this newspaper, or interest by Kenney.

Cynthia Weehler

Greg Mello, I highly admire your work, but I must correct two of your statements. It is incorrect that the waste for the new, expanded mission is the same as the waste currently allowed at WIPP. While it is crisscrossing the state, and indeed 11 other states, it is the same plutonium-239 but in a much more concentrated form than currently allowed. For more than half of those transports it will be in a powdered oxide form which, if released, sacrifices farmland, ranch land, our homes, and our lives. Less than a flyspeck of plutonium in this form, when inhaled, causes cancer 100% of the time. As a fine-grained powder it is inhaled without knowing. The other statement I disagree with is about transportation safety. In 2014 the drum that exploded in WIPP could have just as easily exploded en-route. It was simple luck that it didn't. There have been no studies showing if the TRUPACT containers used for transport would have contained such an explosion. The other traffic concern is that this new expanded mission would increase the amount of shipments, the distance of the shipments (back and forth across 11 states, twice), and the time the shipments will occur (from ending in two years to continuing for the rest of the century). This expansion of dangerous waste on the roads almost ensures an accident over time. Please continue the good work you do as the committed activist and scientist that you are. But be mindful about dismissing the concerns of others, who are working on the same issue and don't deserve ridicule.

Elizabeth maclaren

Thank you Cynthia and all those who are bringing this issue to the attention of the public.

Cynthia Weehler

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Cristine Marchand

Thank you to Environmental Secretary Kenney for exercising leadership to protect New Mexico by urging greater congressional review of the transport and storage of dangerous nuclear waste in New Mexico. Federal agencies use code words ‘dilute and dispose’ and ‘downblending’ that mask the horrifying prospect of transportation and storage of new types of more dangerous materials (plutonium oxide powder) in New Mexico. New Mexico communities need congressional help.

Cynthia Weehler

Well said.

Chris Mechels

Beggars can't be choosers.... New Mexico begged for WIPP, and loves the money, so why the drama?? Political posturing!

A more current issue is the implementation of the Cannabis Act, in a series of ILLEGAL Rule Makings by the RLD Department, led by Linda Trujillo. Without the public involvement and input called for the the New Mexico Rules Act, this is installing an illegal drug culture in New Mexico; to the benefit of Egolf and the Governor. This is a much larger threat to New Mexico than the content of WIPP, but nobody seems to care. A lawsuit could unwrap this whole illegal project.

Lynn k Allen

Cannabis doesn't have the killing half life of this "waste" and cannabis is not carcinogenic.

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