A plan to dispose of excess plutonium involving the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad was supported by local business leaders and city government officials in Carlsbad, as they circulated a petition to appeal to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The plan, proposed by the U.S. Department of Energy, would see weapons-grade plutonium sent from the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas to Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico where it would be diluted.
The waste would then be sent to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina for further down-blending before being shipped back to New Mexico to the WIPP site in the southeast corner of the state for disposal.
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In total, about 35 metric tons of surplus plutonium was planned for disposal in this way at WIPP.
DOE officials and supporters of the project said by the time the waste reaches WIPP it would meet federal criteria for disposal.
WIPP is permitted to dispose of transuranic (TRU) waste mostly made up of clothing, soils, equipment and other irradiated materials with radiation levels less than uranium.
It is buried in an underground salt deposit about 2,000 feet beneath the surface where the salt is allowed to collapse and permanently entomb the waste.
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Critics of the proposal worried that as the waste travels to and from New Mexico three times, it might endanger local communities along the route.
The petition circulated by the City of Carlsbad, Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce and nonprofit Carlsbad Department of Development which promotes and recruits businesses in the area, said the project was safe and allowable under federal law.
Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Chad Ingram said he and the Chamber supported WIPP’s mission as a crucial part of addressing nuclear waste in New Mexico and the U.S.
“I think WIPP is a much-needed facility not only for New Mexico, but for the U.S.,” Ingram said. “As long as they continue to operate safely, disposing of down-blended plutonium is a good thing.”
CDOD Director John Waters said the organization was supportive of ongoing operations at WIPP including the DOE’s plutonium proposal.
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“WIPP remains the strongest and most vital link in the DOE chain of operations that are charged with cleaning up the legacy of the cold war,” Waters said. “The Carlsbad Department of Development (CDOD) supports both the continued operations at WIPP as well as the proposal to dispose of more plutonium in the form of down-blended material from Savannah River.”
Waters said the waste would meet requirements set and followed for all other shipments of waste disposed of at WIPP, and that waste similar to the down-blended plutonium was already disposed of from the now-inactive Rocky Flats facility near Denver.
“Carlsbad and our area’s industries offer real solutions to many of the nation’s challenges,” Waters said. “We are proud of our role in providing a solution to help clean up our nation and look forward to providing more solutions in the future.”
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A 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, commissioned by the DOE, found the “dilute and dispose” method at WIPP was a viable way to remove surplus plutonium from the environment and prevent it from being weaponized.
The plan would cost $18.2 billion over more than 30 years, the report said, and could exceed WIPP’s physical disposal area as presently permitted, as well as its statutory limit of 6.2 million cubic feet of waste.
Records show WIPP already holds about 40 percent of its legally allowed capacity.
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The report also suggested WIPP’s security could need to be increased for the plutonium and the DOE would need to address the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA) between the U.S. and Russia which does not recognize the dilute and dispose method.
In his preface of the report, Chair of the Committee on Disposal of Surplus Plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Robert Dynes wrote that the biggest challenges for the project were nontechnical and mostly related to regulatory concerns.
“The dilute and dispose plan is not technically complex,” Dynes wrote. “The true challenges lay in the many mostly nontechnical threads that are connected to the technical plan.”
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Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway touted the report as proof the dilute and dispose method was doable and ideal for fulfilling WIPP’s mission of disposing of the nation’s nuclear waste.
The city’s petition was in response to one recently delivered to Lujan Grisham in opposition to the project, led by Santa Fe-based activist group 285 All, which led to Lujan Grisham penning a letter to U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm to convey the concerns.
“We are circulating a petition in support of WIPP and sending down-blended plutonium to the site. This is a safe and sensible approach,” Janway said. “We are doing this to remind the governor and the state that there is an abundance of support for WIPP and for this proposed plan.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.