DOE Proposes Major Changes to WIPP Operating Permit

* DOE Proposes Major Changes to WIPP Operating Permit

The Department of Energy (DOE) recently released a proposal that would allow them to store or dispose of increased quantities of transuranic waste and highly radioactive remote-handled waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad, New Mexico. DOE has also proposed to eliminate waste examination procedures that verify that the waste at WIPP is properly disposed there.

DOE proposes to increase the amount of transuranic waste that can be stored aboveground at WIPP by ten times. DOE also proposes disposing of remote-handled waste at WIPP, a proposal that was rejected in the past. Remote-handled waste is extremely radioactive and workers must be shielded from such waste to avoid excessive exposure to radiation.

Further, DOE has proposed to eliminate inspection and examination of individual waste drums in favor of periodic examination and greater reliance on accompanying paperwork. Senator Pete Domenici first advocated this proposal in 2003. Shortly thereafter, shipment of waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory was halted for eighteen months due to improper waste examination.

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has already rejected several of these proposals after determining that they were inconsistent with legal and regulatory requirements. Several community organizations throughout New Mexico, including Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), the New Mexico Environmental Law Center and Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, request that NMED reject these proposals again, saying, "NMED cannot give up its authority, which provides essential protection of public health and the environment."

The groups are especially concerned that the request would limit NMED's ability to issue penalties for violations of WIPP's operating permit. NMED has issued large fines in the past in order to assure DOE’s compliance. For example, in 2004, NMED issued a $2.4 million fine to DOE for illegally disposing of waste that had not been properly examined by the Idaho National Laboratory, as is currently required by the permit.

However, the request submitted by DOE also includes a provision that would stop waste examination at the generator sites. Instead such procedures would be performed at WIPP, although there is currently no capacity for waste examination there. Opponents are concerned that this would lead to unnecessary shipping of improper waste to and from WIPP. Don Hancock, of SRIC, said "The proposal to eliminate examination of each waste container [at the generator sites] could allow dangerous, prohibited items to be shipped to WIPP."

Further, DOE proposes to drastically reduce the number of waste barrels that are inspected, which may mean that there could be an increased risk of storing improper waste at WIPP.

Hancock said, "As the only nuclear waste disposal facility of its kind in the world, WIPP will pose major health and environmental problems for thousands of generations. The NMED permit must continue to require adequate [examination] procedures at the generator sites and stringent waste handling procedures at WIPP to protect public health and the environment and to ensure that WIPP operates as safely as possible."

The public is invited to comment on the proposal until August 12, 2005. For more information, please contact CCNS at 986-1973.

Back to News Index