NMED Issues Draft WIPP Permit Modification Prohibiting High-Level Waste

* The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) recently released a modification to the operating permit for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) prohibiting disposal of controversial high-level sludge at WIPP. The modification comes as a response to Governor Bill Richardson's statement in October that he would not allow high-level waste to be disposed of at WIPP.

According to NMED, the Department of Energy (DOE) is attempting to store inappropriate waste at WIPP by renaming it so that it qualifies as transuranic waste, although it has been stored historically as high-level waste. The waste is currently stored in underground tanks at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), Hanford Nuclear Reservation and Savannah River Site.

A recent editorial in the Albuquerque Journal calls the issue one of semantics, as nuclear waste is not classified according to its level of radioactivity, but instead according to the way it was produced. There are three categories of nuclear waste. High-level waste is created as a result of spent fuel reprocessing in nuclear reactors. Such waste is planned to be shipped to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Transuranic waste is plutonium-contaminated waste that is currently shipped to WIPP. Low-level waste is created as a result of weapons production and cleanup activities. It is currently shipped to the Nevada Test Site or stored onsite at facilities like Area G at Los Alamos National Laboratory. DOE created a new category of waste, called waste incidental to reprocessing, which is not acceptable at Yucca Mountain and therefore, DOE believes, must be sent to WIPP.

NMED's proposed permit modification reiterates the criteria for waste disposal at WIPP that was established by Congress in 1992. NMED says, "This waste has not been evaluated by the state for compatibility with [transuranic] waste or for other characteristics that may make disposal at WIPP a danger to public health or the environment."

Governor Richardson also disagreed with DOE, saying "I want to make my position clear, I will not allow high-level waste in New Mexico, no matter what new name DOE comes up with to characterize it ... Waste that has been defined as high-level for decades would suddenly become low-level on DOE's whim."

DOE's plan to rename the sludge has already been rejected by a federal judge in Idaho, whose July ruling lead DOE to request that Senator Pete Domenici include language in the 2004 energy bill that would allow the reclassification. Domenici refused, however. Steve Bell, Domenici's chief of staff, said, "This would clearly be a violation of the operating agreement under which WIPP operates now."

Critics of the plan are also concerned that the sludge would overwhelm WIPP. Although DOE identifies sludge in only 12 of the 177 tanks at Hanford as being eligible for WIPP, many critics are concerned that DOE would use reclassification as a way to dump all of the sludge at WIPP. Geoff Fettus, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "I think this is only the tip of the iceberg that you're looking at with these 12 tanks."

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