Activists who worried plans to dispose of down-blended, weapons-grade plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad posed a risk to local communities, shared their fears with New Mexico lawmakers and called for the project to cease.
The discussion came during a Nov. 12 meeting of the interim Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee during its final meeting ahead of the 2022 Legislative Session expected to commence in January.
The meeting was intended to inform lawmakers on New Mexico nuclear and hazardous waste operations ahead of the session when the Legislature could introduce bills and seek to alter state policy.
Speakers argued local communities were at risk of radiation exposure by the U.S. Department of Energy’s proposed plan to dilute weapons grade plutonium so it would have the radioactivity of transuranic (TRU) waste, making it eligible for disposal at the facility.
TRU waste – mostly clothing materials and equipment irradiated during nuclear activities – is disposed of at WIPP via emplacement in an underground salt formation that gradually collapses, entombing the waste and blocking its radiation.
DOE officials said the “dilute and dispose” method would allow the waste to be disposed of at WIPP under present requirements and not increase risk at the facility.
The process would see about 34 metric tons of plutonium presently held at the Pantex Plant in northern Texas and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina shipped to LANL for preparation and then back to Savannah River where it would be diluted before shipment and disposal at WIPP.
In 2016, the DOE elected to dispose of about 6 metric tons of similar waste using the dilute and dispose method.
But Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen argued transporting the waste through New Mexico could put her community – and communities in 12 other states – at risk of exposure to dangerous radiation.
“An accident will occur. It’s a matter of time,” she said. “Unfortunately, the consequences of an accident with this substance are catastrophic. Common sense tells us that this risk is too great for New Mexicans and should not be accepted.”
Hansen said the plan meant expanding the kinds and amount of nuclear waste allowed to be sent into New Mexico under the State’s agreement with the DOE, a violation of federal and state law.
“When WIPP was created, the State of New Mexico wisely put into place the forms of law, agreements, contracts and an act. I want to emphasize that they are still in place today and must be obeyed,” she said.
“New Mexico knew it was facing a powerful force in the federal government and this was a way to tell DOE that it would stop mission creep and federal overreach if and when it occurred.”
Cynthia Wheeler, co-chair of activist group 285 ALL argued WIPP was authorized to accept materials irradiated by plutonium, not the plutonium itself even with the DOE’s proposed dilution process.
“WIPP can only take plutonium contaminated waste,” she said. “It can’t take pure, concentrated plutonium metal.”
New Mexico Rep. Cathrynn Brown (R-55) of Carlsbad said the committee should hear from other sources from within the DOE and WIPP about the plan, and that it did not mean changing WIPP’s mission or the requirements for allowable waste for disposal.
“The nomenclature about expanding WIPP, I’m not sure that’s accurate,” she said. “We know from many meetings in the past of this committee that WIPP can only take waste that meets the waste acceptance criteria. Maybe it would be good for the committee to hear again what those are.
“I really want to get to the truth of the matter.”
Los Alamos National Lab chided for ‘slow’ clean-up of waste to WIPP
New Mexico Rep. Christine Chandler (D-43) whose district represents Los Alamos County, home to the lab, criticized LANL and the DOE for what she called the “slow pace” of waste cleanup from the facility.
She asked Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Secretary of the Environment James Kenney to pressure the DOE into increasing the rate at which waste is moved out of Los Alamos.
Chandler frequently called on the DOE to prioritize shipments from LANL to WIPP, arguing New Mexicans should be the first to benefit from the New Mexico facility.
“I’m very disappointed, but my hope is that we can make some movement over the next year to improve the mere 30 shipments a year that we’ve been able to do in terms of legacy waste,” she said. “I know the New Mexico secretary for the environment and I’m sure the governor as well have been actively engaged with the (DOE) in terms of finding ways for movement off the hill.
“My hope is that will use every tool in their toolbox to put as much pressure on the Department to ensure their performance improves.”
In Fiscal Year 2021, which ran from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021, LANL sent 33 shipments of transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste to WIPP for permanent disposal in the facility’s underground salt deposit.
In the 2021 calendar year, LANL officials reported to lawmakers the facility had sent 26 such shipments to WIPP to be emplaced.
Mchael Mikolanis, manager of environmental management (EM) at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos Field Office, said LANL was planning four more shipments by the end of 2021.
He said LANL has processed for disposal about two thirds of its stockpile of 10,000 cubic meters of TRU waste, leaving about 1,200 cubic meters above and 2,400 cubic below ground still waiting to be processed and shipped to WIPP.
“That’s the scope of the EM missions still remaining before us,” Mikolanis. “One third of the original hazard, one third of the original waste from when we started.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.