CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — Stronger oversight of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant could be coming as the federal government was called on by New Mexico officials and members of Congress to address alleged problems with the U.S. Department of Energy’s environmental cleanup operations.
New Mexico Environment James Kenney expressed concerns for operations at WIPP in a letter to the federal Government Accountability Office, calling for the office to increase its oversight of the nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad, the Current-Argus reported.
Low-level transuranic (TRU) waste from around the country is disposed of at WIPP via burial in a salt deposit about 2,000 feet underground.
Story continues below
- Albuquerque: Albuquerque students turn guns into musical instruments
- Crime: Bernalillo County D.A. to ask to detain teen accused of Coronado Center shooting
- New Mexico: Report: Outdoor recreation brought in more than $2.4B for New Mexico in 2022
- Local: ‘Beautiful soul’: Family remembers Hobbs woman killed in domestic dispute
It is owned and operated by Energy Department and its Office of Environmental Management and is permitted and regulated by the New Mexico Environment Department.
In his Dec. 22 letter, Kenney said the Government Accountability Office should review nuclear programs in New Mexico, including the prioritization of nuclear waste shipments to WIPP from facilities outside New Mexico.
Kenny said first priority should be given to waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico, where the DOE intends to increase production of the plutonium pits used in nuclear weapons. He noted that DOE has entered into legally binding settlement agreements with some states to prioritize waste shipments at the expense of shipments from New Mexico and other states.
“This is problematic for both the cleanup of legacy waste at LANL and new waste from pit production at LANL,” he wrote.
Before DOE entered into such agreements, as it had with Idaho for cleanup at Idaho National Laboratory in 1995, Kenney said the agency should have engaged with New Mexico stakeholders who would bear the impacts of moving out-of-state nuclear waste into their state.
The Idaho agreement led to shipments of nuclear waste left over from the Cold War heading to WIPP. The DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office approved 2,237 drums of TRU waste for shipment earlier this year – accounting for about six shipments a week through February 2022.
In 2021, WIPP accepted an average of about five shipments per week, records show, and officials reported 30 shipments were sent to WIPP from Los Alamos.
“The practice of DOE EM solely managing waste shipments to WIPP from around the U.S. without first discussing with New Mexico stakeholders – including NMED as its regulator – now merits immediate congressional oversight,” Kenney wrote.
In response, DOE officials in an emailed statement said WIPP prioritizes shipments based on their availability and certification under the federal Land Withdrawal Act.
“DOE will continue its transparency efforts while strongly encouraging community engagement at all public meetings, including those hosted by DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office,” the statement read.
Kenney also voiced reservations about DOE officials allegedly seeking to expand the kinds of waste accepted at WIPP.
A recent DOE proposal sought to redefine high-level waste to consider the radiation level as opposed to the current method that considers where the waste was generated, potentially leading to more waste coming to WIPP, Kenney said.
Another concern, Kenney wrote, was a DOE-proposed “dilute and dispose” program that would see high-level plutonium processed to lower its radioactivity so it could meet WIPP requirements.
The proposal would see up to 34 tons of plutonium from the DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Pantex Plant in northern Texas processed and prepared for disposal at WIPP.
The Pantex waste, under the DOE’s preferred method published in the Federal Register, would be sent to Los Alamos for preparation and then to Savanna River for dilution before heading back to WIPP for disposal.
Plutonium waste at Savannah River would be down-blended there before shipment to WIPP.
Kenney’s letter was in response to a Dec. 2 letter from the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce calling for the GAO to hold a program-wide review of “extreme management challenges” at DOE’s Office of Environmental Management.
The office was added to the GAO’s High Risk List in 2017 and remained on the list at the time of the letter.
Committee members in their letter outlined concerns with program management, safety costs, soil and groundwater remediation and stakeholder engagement.
“In an effort to assist us with our oversight of EM’s cleanup efforts, the committee would like GAO to examine the major management challenges at EM that affect its ability to reduce its environmental liabilities and make progress on longstanding high risk areas,” the congressional letter read.