A nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad could be considered for the disposal of commercial waste as the U.S. Department of Energy seeks alternatives to leaving it where it was generated.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is only permitted to dispose of the U.S. Department of Energy’s transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste via burial in an underground salt deposit under federal law.
It’s trucked in from DOE sites and national laboratories around the country, consisting of mostly clothing materials, equipment and other debris irradiated during nuclear activities like research or weapons development.
But in a Sept. 29 report from federal watchdog agency the Government Accountability Office, the DOE identified WIPP as “preferred alternative” to disposing of this additional stream of waste known as “greater than Class C (GTCC)” waste.
GTCC waste is a type of commercial low-level nuclear waste coming from decommissioned reactors or unused medical or industrial equipment, said the report.
The DOE is responsible for disposing of this commercial waste, along with similar waste generated by the government known at “GTCC-like” waste, the report read, originating from nuclear cleanup operations at government-owned facilities.
“Until a legal disposal option becomes available, GTCC and GTCC-like waste will continue to be stored at the sites where it was generated or at storage facilities, incurring environmental and security risks as well as storage costs,” the report read.
About 12,000 cubic meters of the wastes were expected to be generated and require disposal through 2083, read the report, and the DOE found that WIPP, commercial disposal sites or both would be ideal for addressing the waste.
The report found multiple regulatory and legal hurdles to dispose of the waste, which is presently stored at the generator sites.
“GTCC and GTCC-like waste currently do not have a legal pathway for disposal,” read the report. “DOE is responsible for identifying a pathway for and carrying out disposal of both types of waste.”
It found the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which largely oversees commercial waste originating from private facilities like nuclear power plants, must update its regulations that restrict disposal of the waste and to allow the NRC to potentially relinquish authority for disposing of the waste to the states.
The DOE must also await Congressional direction before proceeding with disposal of the GTCC waste, the report found, as present federal law could bar the federal government from taking control of commercial waste.
NRC’s role in disposal of the waste is approving a facility for the work while the DOE must find a “pathway” to disposal, the report read, and conduct the operations once receiving NRC approval.
“However, without clarification of NRC’s statutory ability to relinquish this authority, NRC could face litigation,” the report read. “This could delay disposal and lead to continued costs and risks.”
Feds hope to add plutonium, nuclear tank waste for disposal
Those barriers should be too much to see the waste ultimately brought to WIPP, said Don Hancock with the Southwest Research and Information Center, a government watchdog group based in Albuquerque.
He said if the federal government wants to expand the kinds of nuclear waste it can dispose of, a second repository should be sited and built.
Preferably that would be outside of New Mexico, Hancock said, a state with a history of nuclear activities and subsequent public health risks dating back to the first atomic bombs tested at the Trinity Site in 1947 near Alamogordo, and decades of uranium mining in the northern part of the state.
“It’s another piece that shows the DOE should be developing another repository,” Hancock said of the potential plan for GTCC waste at WIPP. “WIPP is not for commercial waste of any kind.”
The DOE was also developing plans for the disposal of two other waste streams: surplus plutonium the DOE plans to dilute to meet WIPP’s disposal standards and TRU wastes stored in tanks at the DOE’s Hanford Site, a decommissioned nuclear production facility in rural Washington in the process of being remediated.
For the plutonium plan, the DOE proposed sending about 34 metric tons of the waste from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas first to Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico for initial processing.
It would then go back to Savannah River for dilution so it could be characterized as TRU waste, and then be sent to WIPP for final disposal.
That plan drew the ire of watchdog and activist groups who contended the waste would pass through New Mexico three times enroute to disposal, putting communities in the state at a heightened risk.
For the Hanford waste, the DOE would remove the TRU waste from tanks at the site, dewater and package it before shipping to WIPP.
“The Department’s plan for these wastes is to remove these wastes from these tanks, dewater, package, certify, and then dispose of these TRU wastes at WIPP,” the report read.
That waste already meets the requirements for TRU waste, per a DOE report, and can be legally disposed of at WIPP it is made up of tools, clothing and laboratory equipment used during plutonium production at Hanford stored in the 1970s and ‘80s, read a report from Hanford Site.
About half of the waste meets TRU waste requirements for disposal at WIPP, read the Hanford report, while the rest was low-level waste disposed at the site.
The report estimated more than 1,200 shipments of waste will leave Hanford for WIPP during the TRU waste retrieval program.
Adding new types of nuclear waste an undue ‘expansion,’ watchdog says
But Hancock said more kinds of waste at WIPP meant expanding its initial purpose and lifetime.
“The greater-than Class C waste is just one of the plethora of wastes they want to send to WIPP,” he said. “The DOE needs to find a new place for the waste. If there’s only one repository, it makes no difference what the law it. Ultimately that law will be violated and changed.”
Under the present permit the DOE holds with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), WIPP was planned to close in 2024.
That timeline could be extended in the upcoming permit renewal, as the DOE removed the closure date, opting to leave it open-ended at WIPP works towards its statutory capacity of 6.2 million cubic feet of waste.
WIPP officials contended that there was no intention to expand WIPP’s capacity beyond present federal law.
“We’re not expanding beyond the legislative limit that we have for WIPP,” said Todd Shrader, principal deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) in a February interview with the Carlsbad Current-Argus.
“That number is still there.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.