WIPP: Expanding Threat to Public Health?

By DON HANCOCK, Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC)

Although the world’s first geologic repository for military nuclear waste does not have room for all of the hottest waste it is supposed to handle, the federal government is proposing to disregard legal limits and expand the types and amounts of waste destined for the site. Since the federal government and nuclear industry have totally failed in their attempts to find technically sound, publicly accepted consolidated storage or disposal sites, it is not surprising that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is being eyed for other wastes.

Transuranic waste routes to WIPP.
Transuranic (plutonium contaminated) waste routes to WIPP. newsnewnexico.blogspot.com image

The failure to address WIPP’s shortcomings does not build confidence that shipping high-level nuclear waste with about 1,000 times more radioactivity than WIPP is approved to handle would be safe now and for thousands of generations that the wastes are hazardous. Decisions made about expanding WIPP in 2013 could determine whether southeastern New Mexico becomes the primary target for future nuclear waste storage and disposal or whether WIPP’s problems are addressed and a scientifically sound, publicly acceptable national nuclear waste program is finally undertaken.  Congress may take action on nuclear waste, so now is the time for people to pay attention. Public action has been important in determining WIPP’s role for the past 40 years.

WIPP’s mission:

The WIPP Land Withdrawal Act (LWA, Public Law 102-579, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on October 30, 1992) was the result of six years of congressional consideration and more than a decade of public debate about the facility’s mission. The law limited WIPP to defense transuranic (plutonium-contaminated) waste and prohibited transportation or disposal of high-level waste or spent nuclear fuel. The law further limited the amount of transuranic waste to 6.2 million cubic feet (175,564 cubic meters), limited the radioactivity of remote-handled waste that is too radioactive to be directly handled by people to 5.1 million curies, and placed other restrictions on remote handled waste. The law also incorporated the agreement of the Department of Energy (DOE) and the State of New Mexico that limits remote handled waste to no more 250,000 cubic feet (7,079 cubic meters).

Those limits were in keeping with the 1979 law (Public Law 96-164, Section 213) that authorized WIPP as “a research and development facility to demonstrate the safe disposal of radioactive wastes from the defense activities and programs of the United States exempted from regulation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission” (NRC). In 1982, Congress also had excluded WIPP from consideration as a repository for both high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel.

Thus, WIPP’s mission has been to demonstrate whether the federal government and its contractors, at the cost of unknown billions of dollars can: (1) safely operate WIPP to meet the “start clean, stay clean” standard; (2) safely transport plutonium-contaminated waste through more than 20 states without serious accidents or release of radioactive or hazardous contaminants; (3) meet commitments to clean up transuranic waste at about 20 DOE nuclear weapons sites; and (4) safely close, decontaminate, and decommission the WIPP site, beginning in 2030 or sooner.

WIPP’s performance:

The first shipment of waste, from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, arrived at WIPP in the early morning of March 26, 1999. Since that time, a significant amount of the underground disposal area has not been used for waste because space has been left empty or used for “dunnage” containers that do not contain any waste. As of February 28, 2013, 85,185 cubic meters of contact-handled waste (in containers so that it can be directly handled by people) and 558 cubic meters of remote handled waste were emplaced. The repository is designed to fit all waste into eight, or at most ten, panels of seven football-field-size rooms each. But in the first five panels, 75,772 cubic meters of contact handled waste was emplaced, well under half of the 168,485 cubic-meter-limit. For remote handled waste, 411 cubic meters was emplaced, less than six percent of the legal limit. Thus, the maximum remote handled capacity, based on the long-standing configuration of one canister in each hole in the room walls and up to 730 canisters per panel, is 3,545 cubic meters, which is half of the legal limit and more than 2,000 canisters less than the amount of remote handled waste in the current WIPP inventory.

Wikipedia image
Wikipedia image

WIPP’s performance has not hurt its standing in Congress, which normally provides more funding than what the administration requests. WIPP’s over-spending and under-performing record is typical of other DOE sites.

High Level Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel storage and disposal:

The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) required DOE to begin accepting commercial spent nuclear fuel at a repository by January 31, 1998. Congress amended that law in 1987 to designate Yucca Mountain in Nevada as that repository. In addition to the fact that the large majority of Nevadans opposed the site, there were significant technical problems, including numerous earthquake faults and the likelihood that ground water would be contaminated from leaking radioactive waste. In the George W. Bush administration DOE submitted a license application to the NRC on June 3, 2008. But the Obama administration decided to terminate the Yucca Mountain program including ending its funding, and DOE filed a request to withdraw the license application on March 3, 2010. In the meantime, NRC licensing boards had approved eight parties and 299 contentions (an issue of law or fact for which the application fails to meet legal or regulatory requirements) against the license. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from Nevada has ensured that Congress has provided no funding for Yucca Mountain in recent years.

While the final fate of Yucca Mountain may be decided in Congress, the courts, or the NRC, the fact is that there will be no repository for spent fuel and high-level waste for decades. The DOE’s nuclear waste strategy, released in January 2013, includes the goal of operating a repository in 2048.

In the 1980s, DOE proposed a consolidated storage site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for commercial spent nuclear fuel, but that decision was annulled and revoked by the 1987 NWPA amendments. That law also provided for an Office of Nuclear Waste Negotiator, which for more than seven years mostly sought volunteers for consolidated storage. A site on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico was rejected by tribal members. Several nuclear utility companies then pursued consolidated storage on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation in Utah. The Goshute Private Fuel Storage site was licensed by the NRC in February 2006. But the site never operated because tribal, public, and state of Utah opposition put up regulatory and legal barriers. On December 20, 2012, the companies requested that NRC terminate the license.

About 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel has been generated from the 104 licensed commercial nuclear plants and from 11 others no longer in operation. That amount increases by about 2,000 metric tons each year as fuel is unloaded from operating reactors. About 2,800 metric tons (4 percent) of fuel is at the shutdown reactor sites. In addition, DOE has about 2,500 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at Hanford, Washington; Idaho National Lab; Savannah River Site; South Carolina; and Ft. St. Vrain, Colorado. That amount increases slowly as spent fuel is discharged from nuclear submarines and stored at the Idaho lab. Therefore, more than 97 percent of spent fuel is commercial, and that waste has been the primary focus of consolidated storage and disposal proposals.

The Obama administration established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future on January 29, 2010 to conduct a comprehensive review of spent fuel and high-level waste policies and recommend a new plan. The Commission’s January 2012 final report stated that WIPP shows “that nuclear wastes can be transported safely over long distances and placed securely in a deep, mined repository.” The Commission also supports an “adaptive, staged, and consent-based approach” to siting disposal facilities and sees WIPP as a positive example of that approach.

Another indication of increased attention to WIPP is the fact that the Department of Energy has five current proposals to expand WIPP.

1.  Shielded containers.  On September 30, 2011, DOE submitted a request to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to allow remote handled waste in lead and steel shielded containers to be handled as if it were contact handled waste. Many people objected that the request did not acknowledge that a major purpose was to address the remote handled capacity shortfall and because of limited public comment. On January 31, 2012, the NMED Secretary denied the request.

In July 2012, DOE submitted a very similar request. Although even more people opposed the request, on November 1, 2012 NMED approved the modification. On November 16, Southwest Research and Information Center and Elizabeth Richards of Carlsbad filed an appeal in the New Mexico Court of Appeals. A brief for the case should be filed in early April and an NMED response is expected by the end of May. The Court’s decision could be during the summer. Shielded containers have not yet been used.

2.  Surplus plutonium. In March 1995, President Clinton declared 200 metric tons of nuclear weapons fissile materials to be surplus to national defense needs. Storage and disposal options for 50 metric tons of surplus plutonium (Pu) were discussed in the December 1996 Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS). The document rejected WIPP as an option because “surplus Pu would exceed capacity…would likely require amendment to the [LWA], associated regulations, …regulatory compliance documents, …among other things.”

The January 1997 Record of Decision stated that surplus plutonium would either be immobilized or used as fuel (Mixed-Oxide or MOX) in commercial power plants and the waste would all be disposed in a Nuclear Waste Policy Act repository.  Four draft and final EISs were done to further detail that disposition program. In July 2010, DOE announced that it would consider a new alternative: sending surplus plutonium to WIPP.

On July 27, 2012, DOE released the Draft Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SPD DSEIS). The preferred alternative is to have Savannah River Site process six metric tons of plutonium and ship it to WIPP for disposal with other contact handled waste, despite the many questions about the legal and technical basis of that option in comments after the 2010 announcement. DOE has not explained the legality of changing the program without first reissuing for public comment a revised or new PEIS.  Nor did it explain how it had determined that the surplus plutonium would not exceed the actual, if not legal, capacity for contact handled waste. The DSEIS does not discuss how shielded containers would take up some of the contact handled space and the impact on actual capacity.  DOE plans to issue the Final SEIS in 2013, and has already shipped some surplus plutonium from Savannah River to WIPP.

3.  Greater-Than-Class C (GTCC) waste. GTCC waste is “low-level” waste that is so radioactive for more than 1,000 years it cannot be disposed in existing low-level waste sites. While states are responsible for disposal of class A, B, and C low-level wastes, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985 gave the federal government responsibility for disposing of the most radioactive of low-level wastes (GTCC) in an NRC-licensed facility. NRC has long considered that geologic disposal is required for GTCC waste. Since DOE took no action regarding GTCC waste disposal, in 2005 Congress directed DOE to submit a report on disposal alternatives and await congressional action before proceeding.

In February 2011, DOE released a draft environmental impact statement on the disposal of low-level radioactive waste. The only geologic repository considered for 160,000,000 curies of commercial waste is WIPP, even though that’s more than 30 times of the amount of radioactivity expected from all the transuranic waste at WIPP and despite the Land Withdrawal Act prohibition on commercial waste. Many comments at public hearings and in writing strongly opposed using WIPP. DOE plans to issue the Final EIS in 2013. Any further action awaits what Congress then decides.

4.  Elemental Mercury. The Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008 directed DOE to designate a storage facility for elemental mercury by January 1, 2010. The law further directed that the storage facility begin to receive mercury by January 1, 2013. DOE did not comply with the first date, but did issue a Final Long-Term Management and Storage of Elemental Mercury EIS in January 2011. That EIS considered storage locations in Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington and selected Waste Control Specialists near Andrews, Texas (adjacent to the New Mexico border) as the preferred alternative.

On June 5, 2012, DOE announced that it was reconsidering the EIS and planned to issue a supplement that would consider WIPP and a site adjacent to WIPP as mercury storage sites. The announcement provided no basis for the reconsideration. There was substantial opposition at the public hearings and in written comments to New Mexico being considered for mercury storage. DOE plans to issue a draft supplement to the mercury EIS in March 2013. There would then be public hearings in Carlsbad and Albuquerque, perhaps in April, before a final supplement is issued. Congress would have to provide funding before a mercury storage site could open.

 5. Twenty tanks of Hanford high-level waste. On March 6, 2013, DOE announced that it planned to send 3.1 million gallons of waste from the Hanford site to WIPP. That idea had been strongly rejected by Governor Bill Richardson, and a provision was included in the WIPP Permit in 2004 to prohibit waste from those 20 tanks and 157 others at Hanford, as well as high-level waste tanks at the Idaho National Lab and Savannah River Site. Later this spring there will be a public comment period on the DOE’s proposal.

What will Congress do?

During the years of debate about WIPP that started in the 1970s, many New Mexicans expressed concerns that if WIPP ever opened as the nation’s only repository, there would be significant likelihood it would attract proposals for additional wastes. At various times before the 1992 Land Withdrawal Act, DOE or others publicly supported ideas to expand WIPP to high-level waste experiments or commercial waste disposal. Because of opposition to such proposals and public support for WIPP having a limited mission and operational lifetime, restrictions were established by the State of New Mexico in a Consultation and Cooperation agreement negotiated with DOE and mandated by the 1979 law. The Land Withdrawal Act also reflected those promises and agreements.

For almost 25 years, there was little attention on WIPP as an alternative consolidated storage or disposal site, because Yucca Mountain was the preferred repository for spent fuel and high-level waste. This changed when funding for Yucca Mountain was terminated.

That WIPP was “out of sight, out of mind” (except for New Mexico and states with defense transuranic waste), also changed with the national exposure by the Blue Ribbon Commission. The Commission’s Final Report reflected the positive support for WIPP that the Commission experienced in Carlsbad in January, 2011, but not the overwhelming opposition to expanding WIPP that it heard in Albuquerque (even though it shut down the hearing early).

Despite Congress’s dismal record with mandating storage and disposal sites and dates in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and for Greater Than Class C and mercury, there are already proposals to try to implement the “prompt consolidated storage” recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission.  Southeastern New Mexico, including the WIPP site, may be viewed as “consenting” to that storage, despite decades of documented opposition and legal restrictions.

In 2013, Congress likely will consider nuclear waste legislation for a new spent nuclear fuels storage facility and perhaps more comprehensive nuclear waste legislation. Republican leaders in the U.S. House support legislation to nominate Yucca Mountain as the storage and disposal location for high level waste and spent nuclear fuel. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has promised to block any such legislation, and President Obama opposes it. Four senators – Democrats Ron Wyden of Oregon and Diane Feinstein of California and Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lamar Alexander – are writing a nuclear waste bill to be considered by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Wyden chairs and Murkowski serves as the top Republican. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which Feinstein chairs and Alexander serves as the top Republican, may again include a mandate for DOE to designate a high level waste/spent nuclear fuel storage site, as they did in the 2012 bill that the last Congress did not pass.

New Mexico’s two senators should play important roles in any such legislation as they serve on those two committees, and they have previously supported the Land Withdrawal Act restrictions. Senator Tom Udall is a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee and Senator Martin Heinrich is on the Energy Committee. Senator Udall also is a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which should consider the legislation.

Why not have High Level Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel?

In addition to the repeated promises to limit wastes that were included in the Land Withdrawal Act, WIPP and southeastern New Mexico are not technically suitable for high level waste and spent nuclear fuel. The radioactivity in the transuranic waste planned for WIPP will be 7 million curies or less. In contrast, DOE high level waste contains more than one billion curies. Commercial spent nuclear fuel has more than 10 billion curies (with more generated every day), or more than 1,000 times that in WIPP inventory. Thus, the public health and environmental damage from accidents or leaks could be much greater with high level waste.

Many scientists for decades have considered salt to have serious deficiencies in comparison to some other geologic formations for spent nuclear fuel and high level waste because such heat-generating waste can rapidly deform the rock and create instability that could endanger workers and release radioactivity.  In addition, the WIPP site is surrounded by active oil and natural gas production facilities, and reserves underlie the waste disposal area, the mining of which could result in breaches and releases of radioactivity. Pressurized brine reservoirs also underlie the waste disposal area, which could result in waste being transported to the surface, if a pathway is created by mining or other means.

Instead of consolidated storage, community organizations in all 50 states have supported keeping spent nuclear fuel at or near reactor sites in hardened on-site storage (HOSS) until a scientifically sound, publicly accepted repository program is in place. Such a program would have those with the most experience and incentive to safely handle the waste – power plant operators – store the wastes in ways to prevent accidents or terrorist attacks. Wastes would then be transported only once, from the reactor to the repository, rather than two or more times, first to consolidated storage and then to a repository site.

Nonetheless, the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance in southeastern New Mexico is working with the French nuclear company, Areva, to develop plans for consolidated storage near the WIPP site. In October 2012, Areva became part of the operating contractor team at WIPP. For decades, public sentiment, expressed in hearings, protests, public opinion polls, and other means, has strongly opposed spent nuclear fuel and high level waste storage or disposal in New Mexico. Rather than consenting to such waste, New Mexicans have frequently said “No.” Will DOE and Congress again hear and respond to that strong opposition?


Blue Ribbon Commission Final Report: http://cybercemetery.unt.edu/archive/brc/20120620220235/http://brc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/brc_finalreport_jan2012.pdf

DOE’s 2013 Nuclear Waste Strategy: http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2013%201-15%20Nuclear_Waste_Report.pdf

DOE WIPP homepage: http://www.wipp.energy.gov/

SRIC nuclear waste homepage: http://www.sric.org/nuclear/index.php


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