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WIPP: Expanding or Not?

Truck routes to WIPP

After more than 20 years of controversy, the first truck of radioactive garbage arrived at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the world's first nuclear waste repository, on March 26, 1999. During the last two years, WIPP has received little scrutiny from Congress or the news media, and it has received less than one percent of the waste that it is projected to dispose during its 35-year operational lifetime. However, this year the Department of Energy (DOE) intends to fundamentally expand the mission of WIPP and to significantly weaken the health and safety requirements for the facility. The changes are claimed to "optimize" WIPP by speeding up waste shipments.

WIPP opened even before it had met all regulatory requirements. Now, DOE wants to relax health and safety requirements because it cannot meet them, and to expand WIPP by allowing it to receive wastes and operate in ways beyond its design. Citizens are strongly opposing the expansions because they are dangerous and presage future changes that are contrary to health and safety protections that even supporters of WIPP previously agreed were necessary.


Since its inception in the mid-1970s, WIPP was slated for transuranic (TRU) waste produced from building nuclear weapons. In addition to plutonium-239 and other radionuclides that are dangerous for thousands of generations, DOE says that the majority of TRU waste also contains hazardous chemicals which are regulated under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act.

In 1991, when DOE tried to open WIPP, then New Mexico Attorney General Tom Udall sued to prevent the waste shipments. SRIC, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund joined the lawsuit to require, among other things, that WIPP not open until it complied with RCRA. Washington, D.C. federal court judge John Garrett Penn ruled in favor of the state and the environmental groups and granted a permanent injunction to prevent WIPP from opening until Congress enacted legislation. Upon appeal in 1992, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the injunction but remanded the RCRA decision to the judge.

WIPP is the world's first repository, and if it is filled to capacity it will be one of the most dangerous places on earth. Because of its large amounts of long-lived radioactive and toxic wastes, SRIC and citizens demanded that the law contain strong requirements to protect public health, safety, and the environment. In October 1992, Congress passed the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act (Public Law 102-579), which allowed WIPP to operate if it complied with health and safety requirements, including RCRA.

In February 1994, the DOE WIPP Manager unequivocally promised the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), the state regulatory agency, and SRIC that it would not ship any waste to WIPP without the state permit. The permitting process took several years, primarily because of inadequate information about wastes coming to WIPP, causing DOE to revise its application more than six times. But the application always reiterated that no waste would come to WIPP until the permit was issued.

On May 15, 1998, NMED issued a draft WIPP permit. On May 18, 1998, DOE reversed its position by saying that it would open WIPP by shipping purely radioactive waste before the permit was issued. On March 22, 1999, Judge Penn, who issued the injunction in 1992, refused to enjoin shipment of purely radioactive waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory to WIPP. The first shipment followed four days later, and 38 trucks brought waste to WIPP before the permit was issued on October 27, 1999.


WIPP has always been described as unlike all other major DOE facilities which are contaminated with radionuclides and toxic chemicals. DOE claims that WIPP would "start clean and stay clean." As the lead witness for DOE and Westinghouse (the operating contractor) stated at the hearing on the state permit:

"We never open waste containers that are received from an offsite generator.... By not opening the waste, we can eliminate the possibility of spreading contamination throughout our facility. So not opening the containers, keeping the containers sealed, is a major — a major strategy in our protection of human health and the environment."
--"Testimony of Robert F. Kehrman, February 22, 1999.

Within 18 months of opening WIPP, DOE reversed that long-held position and proposed bringing drums of waste to WIPP and then opening them up to determine (characterize) what they contain. Such a change would allow items to come WIPP that are prohibited from disposal — explosives, ignitible, corrosive, reactive materials, or large amounts of liquids, among others. DOE also wanted to allow indefinite surface storage of waste at WIPP. Hundreds of citizens, SRIC and other citizen organizations, and government agencies opposed the DOE modification, causing DOE to withdraw the request on September 29, 2000. At the time, DOE said that it would re-submit the request by October 9, 2000. As of March 2001, the revised request has not been submitted, although DOE continues to maintain that it intends to proceed with the plan.


NMED initially granted an interim approval to the request, then rescinded that approval primarily based on comments from SRIC and Nuclear Watch of New Mexico. In response to further public comment in opposition to modification by SRIC and other groups, NMED denied the modification on March 28.

Among other permit changes that DOE intends to request this year are approval for remote-handled (RH) waste, wastes contaminated with polycholorinated byphenyls (PCBs), and classified wastes. The permit prohibits RH waste because the DOE application did not contain adequate information about the waste. While DOE has yet to develop the facilities or processes to characterize RH waste, which has radioactivity similar to high-level waste, it wants to bring it to WIPP based on "acceptable knowledge" records, which have been shown to be highly inaccurate. Those records do not provide the specific characteristics of the radioactive and hazardous constituents of each container, or even how much RH waste exists. WIPP's capacity is limited to 7,080 cubic meters of RH waste. At times, DOE says that has much less than that amount, and at other times it says it has much more.

In August 2000, DOE asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to approve PCB waste disposal at WIPP. EPA has required DOE to submit an application, which has not yet been done. The EPA review process does not have to same public participation requirements as RCRA, so how much public involvement in the EPA decisionmaking will be allowed is uncertain. If EPA gives its approval, DOE would request that NMED modify the WIPP permit.

Some of the classified shapes and parts in nuclear bombs become contaminated with radionuclides. While DOE has always proclaimed that WIPP is not a classified facility and that all information about the wastes is public, it now wants to bring classified wastes to WIPP, ostensibly to speed up the closure of the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver. Rocky Flats already has been packaging some classified parts for shipment to WIPP even though neither DOE headquarters nor NMED have given their approval.


In January 2001, DOE issued its revised National Transuranic Waste Management Plan in which it described a potpourri of almost 20 substantial changes it is considering for WIPP, including those already described. Changes are required because only 46,300 cubic meters of TRU waste at DOE sites could clearly meet existing requirements, or slightly more than 25 percent of WIPP's design capacity of 175,600 cubic meters.

Some of the deficiencies are caused by the DOE generator and storage sites not being able to justify their previous claims about the types and amounts of wastes. For example, at INEEL, more than 50,000 cubic meters of waste must be processed at the controversial, yet to-be-built Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Facility. More than 7,500 cubic meters contains hazardous chemicals prohibited for disposal at WIPP, another 7,500 cubic meters has "unresolved regulatory constraints," and almost 3,000 cubic meters has other characteristics that are not acceptable at WIPP.

Other deficiencies are related to WIPP's facilities, some caused by the rush to try to open in the 1980s, during which time numerous site and transportation design flaws were created. For example, some waste is too big to fit into the TRUPACT-II shipping container and would have to be transported by train. DOE never designed a shipping container for those items. The TRUPACT-II also cannot handle hotter wastes (with significant amounts of plutonium-238 and americium-241) and those with a large amount of explosive gases, long-known problems which have never been addressed. While DOE has long proclaimed that WIPP would receive about 30 shipments a week, the Waste Handling Building does not have the capacity to handle that many truckloads, so a third loading dock must be built.


While it focuses on expansions and other changes, DOE is not addressing significant operational problems at WIPP and with the transportation system. The most dangerous problem relates to the continued use of Panel 1, which contains the first seven underground disposal rooms that were mined almost 15 years ago. All waste already transported to WIPP is being emplaced in Room 7 of Panel 1. All rooms in Panel 1 have sagging ceilings and heaving floors, which need regular maintenance. The likelihood of tons of ceiling falling increases over time, and even DOE now says that it will not use at least three of the rooms. Such a roof fall could endanger workers and release radionuclides and toxic chemicals into the environment. Even though Panel 2 was mined in an expedited, expensive way and was approved for use in October 2000, DOE continues to use Panel 1, despite the dangers it poses to workers and the environment.

The WIPP permit provided that, because DOE had broken its promise to not ship waste until the permit was issued and waste in such early shipments would not be characterized in accordance with the permit, no mixed radioactive and hazardous waste could be emplaced in Panel 1 after the permit was issued. DOE strongly opposed the provision, while SRIC and others involved in the permitting process strongly supported it. The final permit included the provision and DOE sued to overturn it and some other conditions that it opposed. SRIC and some individuals also challenged the permit. DOE and NMED secretly negotiated a settlement to the DOE lawsuit, including reversing the provision prohibiting mixed waste in Panel 1, without any public hearing. Since the New Mexico hazardous waste law provides for a public hearing on major changes or where there is significant public interest in minor modifications, SRIC and two individuals have sued to overturn the permit change. The New Mexico Court of Appeals could rule on the lawsuit this summer.

Although there hasn't been an accident in the first 170 truckloads (of a projected 38,000), there have been several "incidents." In November 2000, one truck was "lost" and went 17 miles on Interstate 25 heading to Albuquerque, a route that cannot legally be used for WIPP shipments. DOE personnel in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and at WIPP failed to detect that the truck was on the wrong route, but an observant New Mexico State Police officer spotted it on the satellite tracking system and got the truck turned around. At least two trucks have been stopped en route by severe snow, since New Mexico has no authority to have trucks stopped before they reach the state. One truck broke down. Several shipments have arrived at WIPP with radioactivity detected on the outside of shipping containers or missing internal parts of the TRUPACT-II.


If the lack of congressional and public scrutiny of WIPP continues, many of the operational problems will likely not be addressed until there is a serious accident. If the major changes and expansions are approved as DOE proposes, risks will increase to public health and safety. Such modifications would increase the likelihood that serious accidents will occur at WIPP, along transportation routes, or at the DOE sites which are hurrying to ship wastes to WIPP. Such changes would also increase the perception that "anything goes" at WIPP so that even more waste — including wastes from commercial nuclear power plants that is prohibited by federal law and the WIPP permit — could come to the repository.

However, some recent actions by NMED show that citizen involvement can make a difference. SRIC and other groups will continue to oppose those expansions and dangerous changes and will encourage more people to get involved.


Department of Energy
PO Box 3090
Carlsbad, NM 88221

New Mexico Environment Department
1190 St. Francis Dr.
Santa Fe, NM 87502-0110

Citizen for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping
144 Harvard, SE
Albuquerque, NM 87106

Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety
107 Cienega
Santa Fe, NM 87501

Nuclear Watch of New Mexico
551 Cordova Rd. #135
Santa Fe, NM 87501

and the SRIC website's Nuclear pages.

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"Federal policy…has been to assure that "waste management problems shall not be deferred to other generations," and many environmental groups have shared the same view. Geological burial - at first glance anyway - looks like an ideal way to accomplish that since, after all, it "removes" the wastes from the environment and solves the problem once and for all. But in many ways entombment does just the opposite. It deliberately poisons a portion of the natural world for an endless stretch of time and in doing so it not only leaves future generations with thousands of tons of the most dangerous rubbish imaginable on their hands but makes it as difficult as the state of our technology permits for them to deal with it. We cannot promise our children - never mind those who will follow hundreds or thousands of years hence - that they will be safe from the wastes. And so long as that is so, we are not taking the problem out of their hands so much as we are taking the solution out of their hands."
Kai Erikson in
"Out of Sight, Out of Our Minds"
The New York Times Magazine
March 6, 1994.

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