A new exhaust shaft could be built at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad, which supporters argued would improve airflow and access to the underground section of the facility where waste is permanently disposed of in an underground saltbed.
Opponents of the project argued the shaft was also intended to extend WIPP’s operations beyond the previous closure date of 2024 prescribed in the facility’s permit with the New Mexico Environment Department.
A new permit was being drafted and the closure date was likely to be pushed back, but to build the shaft the U.S. Department of Energy must acquire a modification of the current permit from NMED.
Previously, NMED granted the DOE and WIPP’s primary contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership a temporary authorization to begin constructing the shaft and later denied an extension of that authorization citing rising COVID-19 infections at the facility.
On Monday, NMED’s Hazardous Waste Bureau held a public hearing to solicit technical testimony and public comments as to whether it should grant the permit modification for the DOE to build and operate the shaft at WIPP.
The hearing was expected to continue through the following week.
No decision on the shaft was made during the hearing, as it was meant to only solicit opinions and testimony to be evaluated amid the permit modification process.
Michael Woodward, counsel for the DOE and Nuclear Waste Partnership said the shaft, WIPP’s fifth, was needed to repair a “crippled” ventilation system.
An accidental radiological release in 2014 led to a three-year shutdown of WIPP’s primary operations of emplacing waste and mining space for disposal.
The event also contaminated areas of the underground, leading to the closure of several sections of the mine where the air was unsafe to breathe.
That meant less workers were allowed in the underground at a given time, he said, constraining the facility’s ability to conduct waste emplacement, mining and maintenance activities simultaneously.
This slowed WIPP operations and could put the success of its mission to dispose of the nation’s nuclear waste at risk, Woodward said.
“Air to an underground mine is like blood to body,” he said. “Without sufficient airflow, and underground mine simply cannot operate. There must be sufficient air to allow multitasking in the underground.”
Woodward argued the utility shaft was not intended to expand WIPP, contending the amount of waste WIPP was required to dispose was established by Congress and only Congress could expand WIPP’s mission.
The requested permit modification that was the subject of the hearing, he said, did not include any indication of expanding WIPP.
“This particular matter is not the correct time or place to debate the stakeholders concerns as to an expansion of WIPP,” Woodward said. “This permit modification is simply a request to add language to existing permit to allow a new air intake shaft to improve airflows at the mine.
“I don’t know how anybody could be logically opposed to this request.”
Robert Kehrman, a retired geoscientist and consultant at WIPP was called as the permitees’ first witness, testifying to the need for the shaft in allowing multiple operations to be conducted in tandem at the repository.
He said the shat would not alter the nature of WIPP, it’s capacity or the mission and that the project will “protect human health and the environment” while complying with NMED regulations.
Further testimony from DOE and Nuclear Waste Partnership representatives continued to argue the shaft was needed for safe operations at the repository and allowing its construction would not authorize any expansion of the WIPP mission.
The proposal was also supported by local leaders from Carlsbad, the nearest city to the WIPP site where many workers live.
Eddy County Commission Chairman Steven McCutcheon said he and “most” of the Eddy County Commission support the utility shaft due to the safety he said it would provide to WIPP workers
“They now desire to increase and improve underground safety measures for their workers,” McCutcheon said. “I 100 percent support the new utility shaft.”
Chad Ingram, executive director of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce said WIPP for decades provided jobs and support to the Carlsbad community and he trusted the proposed shaft project was developed with the safety of the workforce in mind.
He said he supported the permit modification to build and operate the shaft.
“For decades, WIPP has been a strong partner and supporter of the Carlsbad community. Historically, WIPP has had the health and safety of our local workforce in mind when making these kinds of decisions,” Ingram said. “This is no different. We look forward to WIPP partnering with Carlsbad for many years to come.”
Cynthia Weehler, a Santa Fe resident, and representative of activist group Stop Forever WIPP argued the utility shaft was indicative of the DOE gradually expanding WIPP using individual projects rather than proposing the overall goal of altering the facility’s mission to extend its lifetime.
“It seems to me if NMED approves this permit, it’s colluding with the DOE to relabel a new mission and a future expansion,” she said. “It will lead us to an operation we didn’t consent to. It’s a painfully obvious kind of cover-up.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.