Nuke waste rules proposed for Carlsbad-area site critiqued by watchdogs, local leaders

New conditions proposed by the State of New Mexico for the operation of a nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad drew criticism from local leaders in the Carlsbad area and government watchdog groups alike, as the rules could dictate the next decade of the site’s operations.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant operates under a permit with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), which is renewed every 10 years.

That process is ongoing for WIPP, and NMED added several provisions in a draft permit released last month that called for a stricter accounting of waste coming to WIPP each year, required updates on the process of finding a new repository and demanded a greater priority be placed on disposal of nuclear waste generated in New Mexico.

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The draft permit also contained a clause that would rescind WIPP’s permit should its statutory capacity to dispose of 6.2 million cubic feet of waste be extended, an act that would require a Congressional amendment to the Land Withdrawal Act.

That and other portions of the draft were opposed by Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway, a supporter of WIPP who touted the number of jobs and economic development the site brings to the Carlsbad community.

Janway said NMED did not properly engage with WIPP’s host community in drafting the permit, and if enacted as proposed, the new permit could lead to an earlier-than-necessary closure of the repository.

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“It is certainly our impression that the residents of Carlsbad and the surrounding area did not have any voice when the New Mexico Environment Department was considering its proposed modifications to the 10-year permit,” Janway said.

He argued NMED’s authority at WIPP was tied to hazardous waste, while the federal government regulates nuclear waste, and several provisions in the draft unduly veered into seeking state influence on federal policy.

“Several of the NMED’s proposals are not at all relevant to the hazardous waste permit and, if implemented, could result in WIPP not fulfilling its mission and the early loss of thousands of local jobs,” Janway said.

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Local, federal officials plan to debate nuclear waste rules

The release of the draft opened a 60-day public comment period until Feb. 18, and a public hearing was planned for the summer, according to NMED, with a final decision expected by the end of the year.

Janway said the City of Carlsbad planned to engage in the public comment period to debate sections of the permit it took issue with.

“We hope the NMED will fairly consider the viewpoints of the citizens who live and work near WIPP when developing its regulatory framework,” Janway said. “We will be commenting on our specific concerns related to this proposed permit modification in the near future.”

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Amid the 10-year permit renewal, WIPP is also engaged in the transition to a new contractor to run daily operations at WIPP, which will occur under the final approved permit.

Salado Isolation Mining Contractors (SIMCO) will take over for Nuclear Waste Partnership this year on an estimated $3 billion contract with the U.S. Department of Energy, and spokesman George Rangel said the company planned to work closely with the local community and regulatory agencies to ensure safety at WIPP as its permit is developed.

“SIMCO is currently focusing on safely completing contract transition activities to become the new management and operations contractor for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP),” Rangel said in a statement. “We look forward to working collaboratively with our local communities, stakeholders, and the public to safely and compliantly maintain WIPP operations.”

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Does draft permit expand nuclear waste repository?

Patrick Hefflinger, spokesman for the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, which oversees WIPP’s operations, said the agency was pleased the draft permit contained language to allow two additional disposal panels to be mined in the WIPP underground.

Those panels will serve as replacements for space lost in the WIPP underground to contamination in a 2014 accidental radiological release and will not include an extension of WIPP’s legal capacity limit.

“The Department of Energy has worked closely with NMED over the past two years to provide requested information for the 10-year permit renewal and replacement disposal panels 11 and 12,” Hefflinger said.

“We appreciate that there are many areas where DOE and NMED have already achieved alignment on WIPP and look forward to reviewing the additional draft permit provisions and participating in the public involvement process.”

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But Nuclear Waste Program Director Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque-based government watchdog group, said the additional two panels should not be approved.

He said that would expand WIPP’s physical footprint beyond the DOE’s original agreement with the State of New Mexico.

“We are opposed to the idea of continuing to expand the WIPP underground,” Hancock said. “The panels permitted were designed to hold all of the waste. We don’t agree they (DOE) can keep expanding. From DOE’s standpoint, they can keep expanding forever, and we think NMED should hold the line on that.”

Hancock said he was supportive of a clause requiring the DOE to update the State annually on its efforts to site a new repository for use after WIPP is ultimately closed.

Originally, WIPP’s closure was scheduled for 2024 after it opened in 1999, but the date was removed from the draft and federal officials said the facility could remain open as long as until 2080 as it works to meet its statutory capacity.

“Back when this got started, everyone agreed it would take 25 years and all the waste would be emplaced,” Hancock said. “That’s not going to happen by 2024. That’s not the citizens of New Mexico’s fault or NMED’s fault. It’s on the DOE. They don’t want an end date. That’s something we need to push on.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: Nuke waste rules proposed for Carlsbad-area site draw local criticism