Agreement Reached on WIPP Permit

* Negotiated Agreement Reached on Draft WIPP Permit

On November 23, 2005 the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) issued a draft permit for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). WIPP is a repository for plutonium contaminated waste generated from the making of nuclear weapons. It is located 26 miles east of Carlsbad, in a salt mine 2,150 feet underground. WIPP has been in operation since 1999. The draft permit was intended to modify the original operating permit as requested by the Department of Energy (DOE), which owns and operates WIPP.

The draft permit allowed for several changes which were in dispute, such as the disposal of higher level nuclear waste that must be handled with machinery, called remote-handled waste; relaxation of the requirements for testing the contents of the waste containers; and a fourfold expansion of the above-ground storage space. As a result of the magnitude of these concerns, several citizens groups requested that negotiations be held so that these issues could be addressed and a revised draft permit be issued before going to hearing.

Negotiations were held between NMED, DOE, Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS), Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping and others. The negotiations resulted in changes to about 180 pages of the draft permit, impacting all parts of the permit. "In every case, the changes provide for more stringent requirements than were in the draft permit," according to Don Hancock of SRIC. "While we advocated even more stringent requirements on some matters during the negotiations, the negotiated language provides major improvements to protect public health and safety. There is also a first-in-the-nation requirement for public notification of operational aspects of WIPP. Those provisions will allow the public to be informed and comment on important activities under the permit."

The new requirement for public notification includes an email alert system. If approved, members of the public will be able to sign up to receive these notifications at the WIPP website.

The negotiations reduced the amount of remote-handled waste which can be shipped to WIPP over the next several years by nearly 40 percent. In addition, all of the remote-handled waste will be repackaged at the generator and storage sites before being shipped to WIPP. This will ensure that no prohibited items are contained in the waste drums.

All contact-handled waste also must be examined by radiography or visual examination unless DOE proves that its paperwork is complete and accurate. This process will be subject to the new public notification requirement, which may allow for public participation.

The revised permit has not yet been approved by the hearing officer. If approved, it will then proceed to public hearing. Citizens still have an opportunity to comment upon the permit and attend the hearing. The hearing will be held in Carlsbad at the Stevens Inn from May 31st through June 6th. It will reconvene in Santa Fe at the Santa Fe Community College Board Room on June 7th and will continue through June 9th or until all people have been afforded adequate opportunity to present comment.

NMED has issued a press release and updated the NMED WIPP Information Page.

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