Watchdogs push New Mexico to limit US nuclear waste dump

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FILE – In this March 1999, file photo, the first load of nuclear waste arrives at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant site in Carlsbad, N.M., from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Security and the availability of space at the U.S. government’s only underground nuclear waste repository are among the hurdles identified by experts tasked with studying the viability of a plan to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released its final report Thursday, April 30, 2020, on the decades-long $18 billion plan to dilute and dispose of the waste at the remote site in southern New Mexico. (AP Photo/Thomas Herbert, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Watchdogs on Wednesday renewed their call for New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state environmental regulators to take a stand against the federal government as it looks to extend and expand operations at the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository.

They suggested that the state over the years has rubber-stamped decisions related to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and needs to assert its authority as other states have in holding the U.S. Energy Department accountable for cleaning up contamination and dealing with radioactive waste.

In an application for a 10-year permit renewal, the Energy Department has proposed removing 2024 as the date when closure and decommissioning would begin. The date has been included in every permit since the first in 1999. The Southwest Research and Information Center, residents and former regulators say allowing the change would mark another step toward New Mexico becoming a permanent dumping ground for the nation’s waste.

While federal law limits the kind of waste that can be shipped to the repository, opponents say the Energy Department is looking to expand the mission to include high-level and other types of waste. They say the federal government and Congress have stalled numerous efforts to open other repositories and find other solutions to both defense-related waste and spent fuel that’s piling up at commercial nuclear power plants around the U.S.

“If WIPP can be expanded as long as DOE wants for whatever DOE wants, there won’t be other repositories,” Don Hancock with the Southwest Information and Research Center told state lawmakers during a meeting Wednesday.

He and others also voiced concerns about the state’s temporary approval of plans to construct another shaft at the repository, which would allow for more ventilation and expansion.

State environment officials said they are considering an extension of that temporary approval and are reviewing the permit application to ensure it’s technically complete before a draft permit is released and a public comment period is initiated.

The repository is at the center of a multibillion-dollar effort to clean up waste from decades of U.S. nuclear research and bomb-making. Tons of waste have been stashed for more than 20 years deep in the salt caverns of the New Mexico site. The idea is that the shifting salt will eventually entomb the radioactive tools, clothing, gloves and other debris that make up the waste.

Democratic Rep. Christine Chandler of Los Alamos questioned an Energy Department official during the meeting about why more shipments of Cold War-era waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory are not being sent to the repository. The official acknowledged that shipments from Los Alamos — both legacy waste and newer waste — made up 26% of shipments during the last fiscal year and are expected to make up only 14% of shipments during this fiscal year.

Chandler suggested that New Mexico take that into consideration as part of the permit and include a provision to prioritize cleaning up the contamination at Los Alamos, which played a key role in the once-secret Manhattan Project during World War II and is now in line to restart production of the triggers used in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Reinhard Knerr, manager of the Energy Department’s Carlsbad Field Office, said he didn’t understand why that should be a regulatory requirement.

“As a policymaker who represents the citizens of the state of New Mexico, I think the rationale would be that since we are the repository for the waste that perhaps our waste should get priority so that the citizens of New Mexico are getting greater value for the burden that they have accepted in allowing this facility to operate,” Chandler said.

The Lujan Grisham administration is facing pivotal decisions about whether the state takes on more nuclear waste. The governor already has voiced her opposition to a proposal to build a temporary storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in southeastern New Mexico.

New Mexico Environment Department spokeswoman Maddy Hayden said Wednesday that the administration won’t issue an open-ended permit for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and any action that it can take to expedite and prioritize the disposal of waste generated by Department of Energy or National Nuclear Security Administration operations in New Mexico is on the table.

“Ensuring New Mexico waste is prioritized via an operating permit makes sense and is an option for further consideration by NMED. New Mexicans deserve nothing less,” Hayden told The Associated Press.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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