State oversight activities at a nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad received about $12 million in federal funds provided to two agencies by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The money will pay for the State of New Mexico’s work to ensure safe operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a repository about 26 miles east of Carlsbad where nuclear waste is permanently disposed of via burial in a salt deposit 2,000 feet underground.
Transuranic (TRU) waste, made up of clothing materials and equipment irradiated during nuclear activities, is trucked to WIPP from sites across the U.S.
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To assist with transportation of waste to WIPP, the State’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (ENMNRD) was granted about $6.2 million by the DOE through its New Mexico Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) Transportation Safety Program.
Since the facility began accepting waste in 1999, WIPP drivers covered about 15.7 million loaded miles as of July 2, per the latest records.
Shipments from Idaho National Laboratory traveled the furthest at about 9.3 million miles, while that facility also sent the most shipments at 6,683.
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Idaho was followed by the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, which had about 2.5 million miles traveled for its 1,683 shipments – the third-most among WIPP’s 13 generator sites.
Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico sent the fourth-most shipments at 1,525, but drivers from that site only covered 521,550 miles, records show.
The now-closed Rocky Flats Environment Technology Site near Denver had the third-most distance traveled at about 1.4 million miles, and the second-most shipments at 2,045.
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“The State of New Mexico will continue to provide planning and preparations for the safe and uneventful transportation of radioactive waste in and through the state of New Mexico,” read a statement from the DOE.
After waste gets to the WIPP, the State of New Mexico also has a hand in monitoring the facility’s environmental impacts through its waste disposal, mining and all other operations.
For those activities, the New Mexico Environment Department was granted about $6 million by the DOE.
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NMED’s role at WIPP includes oversight of a permit the DOE holds with the state regulatory agency which is renewed every 10 years.
The approval process for that permit is underway and a draft was likely to be released in August or September, said Reinhard Knerr, manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO).
It will include plans for two additional disposal panels intended to make up for space lost to contamination during an accidental radiological release in 2014, which led to a three-year shutdown of WIPP’s primary operations.
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On May 13, NMED issued a letter to the CBFO citing the renewal application’s incompleteness, chiefly calling for the DOE to propose a final closure date for the site.
The previous permit, which expired in 2020, included a closure date of 2024 which was removed in the renewal proposal.
This was chief among the NMED’s concerns, records show.
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“Please propose an operating period closure date (i.e., month, day, year) to be added to the Permit to realistically portray the operating period of the WIPP facility based on waste projections and within volume limits set by the Land Withdrawal Act (LWA),” read NMED’s letter known as a technical incompleteness determination (TID).
In its response to the TID, the CBFO argued an exact closure date was not required as WIPP’s mission was to emplace the 6.2 million cubic feet of TRU waste as required by the Land Withdrawal Act regardless of the timeline.
That could take as long as until 2080, Knerr said, as TRU waste is continuously generated around the country.
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“It’s not an enforceable aspect. It’s a planning tool,” he said of the previous closure date. “It’s our mission to dispose of that amount of waste, and we’ll continue doing so unless something changes at a higher level.”
Other concerns outlined in the TID included the need for language in the permit to address the disposition of equipment at the end of WIPP’s operating period, the closure of some waste panels, define NMED’s authority to suspend waste shipments from certain facilities and NMED’s review capabilities for such facilities.
“The NMED already has the statutory authority to suspend receipt of waste shipments at the WIPP facility if there is evidence of an imminent hazard to human health or the environment,” read CBFO’s response.
WIPP spokesman Bobby St. John said the facility, DOE and primary contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership worked closely with the State of New Mexico during WIPP’s more than 20 years of nuclear waste disposal.
He said the facility brought more than $800 million in revenue to the state in the last decade, and WIPP workers average about 2,500 volunteer hours a year in the local community near the site.
“DOE and NWP greatly value our relationship with the State of New Mexico and we look forward to continuing to work with our State regulators to ensure ongoing compliance with our WIPP Hazardous Waste Facility Permit,” St. John said in a statement.
“WIPP will continue to work closely with the State of New Mexico and the New Mexico Environment Department on periodic facility inspections and to process permit modification requests necessary to ensure the safe and compliant operation of the WIPP facility well into the future.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.