Help Stop The New Strategic Plan That Would Double WIPP’s Lifespan

Proposed Shaft #5 at WIPP
Proposed Shaft #5 at WIPP

DOE Moves Forward With Unneeded New Shaft at WIPP

Originally billed as a replacement exhaust shaft to help WIPP recover from the 2014 exploding drum event that shut down WIPP for three years, a proposed new shaft is now designed to increase WIPP’s capacity. WIPP officials have repeatedly stated that after a new filter building is complete, WIPP will have returned to its pre-2014 capacity without the new shaft. The $75 million new fifth shaft would increase the mining and waste handling capacity by 25% at any given time.

One would think that increasing the annual ability to emplace waste at WIPP would help keep the repository  on track to stop receiving waste by its original date of 2024. But along with the annual increased mining and disposal capacity, DOE has also released a Strategic Plan to extend WIPP’s waste disposal deadline to 2052.

Forty years ago, Congress designated WIPP as a research and development facility for demonstrating the safe disposal of plutonium-contaminated wastes from national defense activities.  It has a limited mission regarding the types and volumes of waste and a limited lifetime.  It is not to be the only repository.

Now the Department of Energy (DOE) has plans for a new shaft, designated as Shaft #5 (S#5), along with connecting tunnels to the existing WIPP underground facility. The S#5 is one of two new projects referred to as the Permanent Ventilation System (PVS) upgrades. The PVS upgrades consist of S#5 with intake fans on the surface and a New Filter Building (NFB) with exhaust fans located on the surface of the facility. The NFB project was previously approved by the State. The design of S#5 assumes that new exhaust fans and the NFB are operational and that an old interim filter system will no longer be operated. Shaft #5 will be used as the primary air intake shaft for the underground repository.

Despite the fact that the New Mexico Environment Department has not permitted the new shaft, last month DOE awarded a $75 million contract to construct the 30-foot in diameter shaft to a depth of 2,150 feet below ground surface. The original DOE budget line item name of the project was “15-D-412 Exhaust Shaft.” The terms used to describe the project changed over time. Due to the change in design for S#5, the DOE budget line item name of the project was changed to “15-D-412 Utility Shaft.” As a utility shaft, S#5 can support current needs and is capable of supporting future uses (e.g., hoisting capability for personnel, materials, and salt).

There are currently five proposals that could bring new wastes to WIPP. They are: Greater-Than-Class C low-level waste; elemental mercury; high-level waste from tanks at Hanford and other sites; commercial waste from West Valley, New York; and 60,000 pounds of weapons grade plutonium to create the world’s largest underground weapons grade plutonium ore body. Once opened for disposal in 1999, WIPP was to remain open for 25 years.  According to the WIPP Permit, it is scheduled to stop receiving waste in 2024.


The draft Strategic Plan is a wish list for surface and underground infrastructure projects to support expanding the amount of waste disposal and operating lifetime.  Public comments are due to DOE by September 30th.

Sample comments are here

Comments on the proposed new shaft #5 are due by October 16th.

The shaft proposal is here

We will post sample comments soon!

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