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Just Say No (Again) To High-Level Waste At WIPP

On July 2, the Department of Energy (DOE) filed a request to modify the operating permit at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) so that wastes that have been stored in high-level radioactive waste tanks in Washington, South Carolina, and Idaho cannot come to WIPP unless they are approved in future modifications. The modification request reverses DOE's previous position that such wastes could come to WIPP once DOE renames them so that they're no longer called "high-level." DOE changed its position to try to avoid a more sweeping prohibition on wastes that can come to WIPP that many citizens had supported and that the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) had proposed in its own modification request, which is on hold until the DOE request is decided.

Many citizens of New Mexico have opposed high-level wastes (HLW) at WIPP for more than 25 years, since DOE first proposed the idea. As a result that opposition, Section 12 of the 1992 WIPP Land Withdrawal Act states:

Ban on High-Level Radioactive Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel
The Secretary [of Energy] shall not transport high-level radioactive waste or spent nuclear fuel to WIPP or emplace or dispose of such waste or fuel at WIPP.

Hundreds of citizens are now calling on NMED to include a prohibition on renamed HLW in the WIPP permit, and pointing out that DOE's proposed permit modification does not provide sufficient protections. After the public comment period ends on September 7, NMED will make a decision by early November, unless DOE withdraws the request.

What to Do With Dangerous High-Level Waste?

Making plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons created large amounts of radioactivity in liquid wastes from reprocessing of nuclear fuel at Hanford, WA; Savannah River, SC; and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. The wastes were put into tanks (some holding more than a million gallons of waste) that are among the most dangerous health and environmental problems in the country. The tanks are not designed for disposal, and, in fact, many are already leaking wastes into the soil and ground water. Thus, the wastes must be removed from the tanks and put into safer, longer-lasting containers at the three storage sites. But then what?

All the tank wastes have been managed as high-level waste, and federal law requires disposal of such highly radioactive waste in a deep underground repository. Consequently, many people thought that the wastes would be removed from the tanks, solidified into glass logs, and placed in containers that would ultimately be disposed in the first high-level waste repository. In 2002, Yucca Mountain, Nevada was designated as that site by President Bush and Congress over Nevada's strong objections and despite the many technical problems with the site including the inadequate environmental protection standards to judge its safety. In July 2004, the Washington, DC Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated those standards. DOE had been planning to submit its Yucca Mountain license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in December 2004. But the Court decision may delay the application since DOE cannot show that the site would meet final standards that have not been issued.

In addition to the technical and political problems with the Nevada site, it cannot handle all of the nation's irradiated fuel from nuclear power plants, let alone all of DOE's HLW. DOE is not trying to identify other possible repository sites, so even if Yucca Mountain were to open, much HLW would not have a geological disposal site. Thus, waste in the tanks can be expected to remain at the three sites for decades.

DOE is removing some wastes from some tanks. But DOE also has decided that it should be allowed to rename some high-level waste, so that some would be called "transuranic" (TRU) and disposed at WIPP. Other wastes would be called "low level" and could stay in the tanks, which would have grout (cement) added to slow the migration of the wastes. DOE claims that some wastes are not high-level, but "wastes incidental to reprocessing" (WIR). Those policies are part of DOE's "Accelerated Cleanup" program that seeks to reduce the long-term costs of managing all DOE wastes.

In July 2003, a federal district court judge ruled that DOE's WIR policy was illegal. In addition to appealing that decision, DOE has asked Congress to change the law. In July 2003, the Senate approved (on a 48-48 vote) a provision that would allow some Savannah River (but not INEEL or Hanford) tank waste to be grouted and left in the tanks. The House bill had no such provision, so the fate of that legislation is uncertain.

Hanford has the largest number of tanks (177), although Savannah River's 51 tanks contain more than twice as much radioactivity. At Hanford, DOE claims that from 12 to 20 or perhaps more tanks are TRU waste, so those wastes should be packaged and shipped to WIPP.

In addition to telling its contractor, CH2M Hill, to prepare waste for shipment to WIPP, DOE has included wastes from 12 Hanford tanks in the revised inventory that it submitted to EPA in March 2004 as part of the WIPP recertification application. New Mexicans are also objecting to HLW in the recertification. EPA will make a decision in the spring of 2005.

The permit modification that NMED proposed in November 2003 would prohibit tank wastes (and other wastes) because they were not included as eligible for disposal at WIPP in the 1995 Inventory, which was used for the operating permit as well as the Environmental Protection Agency certification for WIPP. Those wastes were excluded from the inventory because the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act prohibition.

DOW's Permit Modification Request

DOE's permit modification request states:

Tank waste - TRU mixed wastes from tanks that has ever been managed as high-level waste is not acceptable at WIPP unless specifically approved through a subsequent Class 3 permit modification.

The request does not include an inventory of whether it refers to all of the 243 HLW tanks at Hanford, Savannah River, and INEEL or only some of the tanks. Thus, at best the request is vague and incomplete. At worst, DOE may be excluding wastes that it now decides it has not "managed as high-level waste" so that such waste can come to WIPP with no approval, similar to its previous position.

The request provides no legal or technical basis for allowing any waste that has been managed as high-level waste at WIPP in light of the legal prohibition on any HLW at WIPP.

Based on its regulations, NMED will have to make a decision by early November, unless DOE withdraws the modification request. NMED can approve the request with or without changes, deny the request, or decide that the request must be substantially changed and revised for additional public comment and possible public hearing.

Since hundreds of citizens are opposing the request while supporting the need for a prohibition on renamed HLW, the effective options for NMED should be either to deny DOE's the request or revise it for additional public comment. A denial would likely mean that consideration of NMED's permit modification would resume at a public hearing.

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"Some people in the community were behind mining, [they] thought, mining is good for money. Some Navajo families were compensated for [past] mining on their lands. They were rich for a while. But it seems like to Navajos or native people, it's not good for us. As of today, I've seen these families suffer; many are gone from alcoholism, and [many] didn't spend the money in the right way. There's nothing there, now they're suffering again. This is almost where we're headed again. In the long run, I think it's not made for the native people to be so rich off the Earth. Uranium mining, it's like it's an omen."

--Mitchell Capitan,
Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining

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