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Will 2004 Bring Major Changes to WIPP?

In the next few weeks and throughout 2004, there will be several major activities related to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the world's first deep underground nuclear waste repository, located in southeastern New Mexico. SRIC, other organizations, and many citizens will play active roles in the outcomes, which could bring about greatly weakened health and safety requirements or provide new prohibitions that prevent some wastes from coming to WIPP.

WIPP's operating permit

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) issued the operating permit for WIPP on October 27, 1999. That more than 1,500-page permit establishes requirements for many aspects of WIPP's operations, including providing the procedures for how each container of transuranic (TRU or plutonium-contaminated) waste is examined (characterized) before it can be shipped to WIPP. Many procedures for receiving, storing, and emplacing waste also are established by the permit.

Most of the provisions of the permit are based on the permit application submitted by the Department of Energy (DOE) and Washington TRU Solutions (WTS), the operating contractor, in 1995. Nonetheless, DOE has filed requests to change hundreds of the permit's requirements. Many of those changes were strongly opposed by SRIC and others because they would not protect public health and the environment. Several were rejected by NMED or withdrawn by DOE. In some cases, DOE has submitted virtually the same request two or three times.

Currently, there are eight major DOE permit modifications pending. Two very significant changes would greatly increased dangers regarding remote-handled (RH) waste and waste characterization requirements.

The permit prohibits RH waste, which is so highly radioactive that it must be heavily shielded. In June 2002, DOE submitted a request to allow RH waste to come to WIPP. SRIC, the New Mexico Attorney General, and many others strongly objected to various aspects of the request, especially the lack of adequate waste characterization procedures. In March 2003, NMED found the request to be inadequate and issued a 51-page Notice of Deficiency (NOD). In May, 2003, DOE submitted a 101-page response to the NOD, but NMED has stated that it will issue another NOD. Before any modification could be approved, there would be a public hearing and a several month comment process.

DOE has long wanted to make the waste characterization procedures less stringent. While NMED has approved some changes, it has continued to insist on characterization of each container, and has not accepted DOE's contention that such extensive procedures are unnecessary. Rather than trying to provide adequate technical justification for major reductions in the characterization requirement, DOE went to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and asked him to pass legislation to support DOE's desired changes. With no notice to NMED or the public, the senator did include a provision (Section 311) in the 2004 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill. The provision became law in December and on January 12, 2004, DOE submitted a permit modification request that it said would implement the federal laws.

SRIC and others strongly object to the federal law and also do not believe that the state can approve many of the requested changes. Public comments on the request were submitted to NMED by mod-March, and sometime thereafter there should be a public hearing and several month comment process.

In August 2003, DOE went to Congress to ask that another law be changed. Since 1982, the federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act has required that DOE's high-level waste (HLW) in tanks at Hanford, Washington; Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory; and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, go to the government's HLW repository (slated to be at Yucca Mountain, Nevada). In July 2003, a federal court judge in Idaho ruled in July 2003 that DOE's attempt to "reclassify" such tank waste was illegal.

While DOE wants to "reclassify" the waste so that much of it can be left at the three sites, DOE also wants to send some of the waste to WIPP even though it was not included in the permit application to NMED. Responding in November, Governor Bill Richardson asked NMED to issue its own permit modification to preclude such waste. NMED issued its modification on November 26, which was supported by the New Mexico Attorney General, SRIC, more than a dozen other organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, which brought the federal court suit, and several individuals. DOE strongly opposed the modification, saying that it was beyond NMED's legal authority. A public hearing is scheduled to begin on June 1. SRIC and other groups will be participating in strong support of the modification.

WIPP and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

EPA is charged with ensuring that WIPP limits releases of radioactivity once the repository is filled with waste and then closed. EPA certified WIPP on May 18, 1998, although it also refused to allow RH waste at that time, primarily because of concerns about the adequacy of waste characterization. DOE has been asking EPA to approve RH disposal at WIPP. In January 2004, SRIC and other citizen groups and the New Mexico Attorney General opposed EPA's tentative approval and asked that EPA conduct a formal public rulemaking process to decide whether to allow RH waste.

The first waste shipment arrived at WIPP on March 27, 1999, so in March 2004, DOE must submit its re-certification application as each five years during WIPP's operations EPA must find that there have been no changes that would indicate non-compliance with the 1998 certification. The 6-month EPA review process does not require public hearings and is not subject to any court challenge, but SRIC and other groups will point out various concerns with WIPP's performance.

WIPP in Congress

Each year Congress approves a budget for WIPP. For this year the budget is $214,207,000. President Bush's budget request for next year is $231,612,000, a 9 percent increase in funding even though only a less than a half-percent increase is planned in the amount of waste received at WIPP.

But other legislation in 2004 will likely relate to WIPP, just as occurred in 2003 with Sen. Domenici's Section 311 provision and DOE's proposal to change the HLW law, which Congress did not pass. DOE is continuing to push for the change in the HLW law.

DOE also wants to change the prohibition on commercial waste at WIPP. In January 2004, the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the West Valley, New York waste site stated that DOE's preferred storage and disposal method for the TRU waste is to send it to WIPP, even though federal law prohibits such waste at WIPP. On January 23, SRIC wrote DOE strongly objecting to the proposal, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M) also wrote a letter objecting to the plan. Sen. Domenici also indicated to the press that he also opposed allowing commercial waste at WIPP. Nonetheless, DOE may again try to change the law to allow such commercial waste, despite New Mexico's objections and the previous failure in 1996 to get Congress to change the law.

Additionally, Sen. Domenici may again try to pass the Section 311 provision, since the pending permit modification will not be approved this year.


SRIC: www.sric.org
DOE: www.wipp.ws
NMED: www.nmenv.state.nm.us/wipp/index.html
EPA: www.epa.gov/radiation/wipp

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