EPA Moves to Allow Remote-Handled Waste at WIPP

* The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently gave preliminary approval for the proposal of the Department of Energy (DOE) to dispose of remote-handled transuranic waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). Remote-handled waste is plutonium-contaminated waste that is so radioactive that it must be stored in shielded containers and handled by remote control devices.

Remote-handled waste disposal requires that both the state and federal governments approve of handling, transportation and storage procedures both at WIPP and the facilities that produced the waste. The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has been reviewing the remote-handled waste proposal for several years.

However, NMED is using the proposal as leverage to oppose the DOE's plans to dispose of high-level waste at WIPP. DOE has requested to dispose of high-level radioactive sludge that is now stored in tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and the Savannah River Site. High-level waste is not permitted at WIPP, but DOE intends to change the radioactive waste classifications in order to dispose of the waste there. In response to this plan, Senator Jeff Bingaman recently called on the National Academy of Sciences to prepare an investigation of the impacts of waste reclassification on WIPP operations.

Governor Bill Richardson has been opposed to disposing of such waste at WIPP since DOE's proposal was announced, saying, "WIPP was not designed or permitted to handle high-level waste." Now he and NMED say that they will not address the remote-handled waste proposal until DOE rescinds its proposal to dispose of the high-level sludge there.

DOE argues that NMED is required to consider the remote-handled waste application independently of other issues. However, Richardson and NMED are continuing their hardball tactic that began with the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Corrective Action Order. In that case, the state refused to allow WIPP expansion until the LANL order was settled. NMED Secretary Ron Curry said that they are using the same tactic in the high-level waste issue in order to, "make sure that [DOE] understand[s] clearly the position of the state, that we don't want to take any reclassified high-level waste...."

The debate comes amid DOE's first application to EPA to renew WIPP's operating permit, as they are required to do every five years. The application must prove that WIPP can safely contain radioactive waste for 10,000 years. Although it was recently shown that WIPP is releasing low emissions of plutonium into the air, Paul Detwiler, of DOE's Carlsbad office, says that the application, "demonstrates that WIPP continues to comply with EPA's regulations for disposal of transuranic waste."

Activists are pleased with Governor Richardson and NMED's position. Joni Arends, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, said, "We are concerned that DOE's attempt to dispose of high-level radioactive sludge at WIPP is their effort to begin using WIPP as the all-purpose nuclear waste dump, which was not its intended use. Governor Richardson's experience as DOE Secretary has given NMED a valuable opportunity to take a firm stand against DOE's outrageous proposals to expand the mission of WIPP."

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