Description and Current Mission
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the nation's only deep geologic long-lived radioactive waste repository. Located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico, WIPP permanently isolates defense-generated transuranic (TRU) waste 2,150 feet underground in an ancient salt formation.
WIPP was constructed for disposal of defense-generated TRU waste from DOE sites around the country. TRU waste consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements. The waste is permanently disposed of in rooms mined in an underground salt bed layer over 2000 feet from the surface.
TRU waste began accumulating in the 1940s with the beginning of the nation's nuclear defense program. As early as the 1950s, the National Academy of Sciences recommended deep disposal of long-lived TRU radioactive wastes in geologically stable formations, such as deep salt beds. Sound environmental practices and strict regulations require such wastes to be isolated to protect human health and the environment.
Bedded salt is free of fresh flowing water, easily mined, impermeable and geologically stable — an ideal medium for permanently isolating long-lived radioactive wastes from the environment. However, its most important quality in this application is the way salt rock seals all fractures and naturally closes all openings.
Throughout the 1960s, government scientists searched for an appropriate site for radioactive waste disposal, eventually testing a remote desert area of southeastern New Mexico where, 250 million years earlier, evaporation cycles of the ancient Permian Sea had left a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed.
In 1979, Congress authorized WIPP, and the facility was constructed during the 1980s. Congress limited WIPP to the disposal of defense-generated TRU wastes in the 1992 Land Withdrawal Act. In 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency certified WIPP for safe, long-term disposal of TRU wastes.
On March 26, 1999, the first waste shipment arrived at WIPP from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
WIPP's disposal rooms are nearly a half mile below the surface (2,150 feet). By comparison, the Empire State Building is only 1,454 feet high.
STOP FOREVER WIPP!
Dragging out WIPP’s operations decades past the original 20-year agreement violates the social contract made with New Mexicans, said Scott Kovac, research and operations director for the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
WIPP is being equipped to take the waste that will be generated from production of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads, Kovac said.
“It [WIPP] was never really suppose to do that,” Kovac said.
Federal officials say a new air shaft is needed at the nuclear waste disposal site in Southern New Mexico to keep workers safe and run more efficiently.
Watch this video from the Stop Forever WIPP coalition: “When is a shaft more than a shaft?” dispelling the idea that an expansion of WIPP will mostly impact the South Eastern part of New Mexico; The new waste targeted for WIPP would be re-processed at Los Alamos. It also dispels the idea that targeting NM for waste disposal has nothing to do with our minority majority population.
“WIPP is supposed to be limited. The state did not agree to 12 panels.”
By: currentargus.com April 15, 2021|
A plan to build two new areas to dispose of nuclear waste began taking shape at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant after the U.S. Department of Energy published a report on the feasibility of adding an 11th and 12th waste panel to the underground nuclear waste repository.
“Essentially blessing what DOE was going to have to do anyway in order to expand nuclear weapons activities and waste disposal,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “And once again demonstrated the subservience of our state government to the nuclear weapons industry here in New Mexico.”
The N.M. 4 and East Jemez Road intersection in the far northwestern corner of Santa Fe County will be improved as part of a $15.5 million upgrade of routes on which Los Alamos National Laboratory transports nuclear waste to an underground disposal site in Southern New Mexico.
The U.S. Energy Department will spend $3.5 million to improve the intersection, which lies just outside Los Alamos County, and another $12 million to upgrade routes it owns and uses mostly to ship transuranic waste — contaminated gloves, clothing, equipment, soil and other items — to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.
The project, planned for the spring, is part of a 2016 agreement the federal agency made with the state in lieu of penalties for a ruptured waste container causing extensive radioactive contamination at WIPP two years earlier.
A container packaged in a volatile blend of organic cat litter and nitrate salts burst in an underground chamber in 2014. WIPP was shut down for three years, and the contamination cost $2 billion to clean up.
Lab and nuclear security officials have indicated road improvements will be needed for shipping higher volumes of waste generated when the lab produces plutonium cores — or pits — used to trigger nuclear warheads.
Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has given itself a Categorical Exclusion (CX) under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for the removal, relocation, and examination of transuranic (TRU) waste drums at Waste Control Specialists (WCS). These drums are similar to the ones that forced WIPP to close in 2014. LANL officials decided that formal environmental assessments, with public input, of the movement of the possibly exploding waste drums are not needed.
“The occurrence of smaller earthquakes began to increase in 2017, when oil and gas boomed in the region, up to about three per day recently. In 2021, records show the region was on track for more than 1,200 earthquakes with magnitudes of 1 to 4.”
CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — Multiple earthquakes were felt earlier this fall in West Texas, leading regulators in that state to designate a seismic response area and call for less wastewater from oil and gas development to be injected in disposal wells.
As more seismic activity was reported closer to the state line, officials in New Mexico have been watching closely and gathering data. Some officials are concerned that as Texas limits the injection of produced water as a means to curb the seismic activity, that could affect producers in New Mexico.
In October, Texas regulators created a second seismic response area just along the border with southeastern New Mexico. Officials pointed to more than a dozen quakes along the state line since Jan. 1, 2020, with six of those reported this fall.
That meant almost half of the heightened seismic activity in the area since last year occurred in the last month, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported. Texas officials referred to the activity as “unprecedented.”
Michael Hightower, director of the New Mexico Produced Water Research Consortium at New Mexico State University, said it was clear Texas’ earthquake problem was spreading toward New Mexico.
“We know there’s a lot of water coming over from Texas,” he said. “If you inject all that, you’re going to have seismicity problems.”
He said most of the seismicity being observed is due to saltwater disposal wells and possible over-pressurization.
The consortium worked with Texas regulators, Hightower said, aiming to devise technology that could treat produced water and recycle it for uses like agriculture or even drinking water.
Many oil and gas companies already recycle produced water for subsequent fracking operations, but Hightower said expanding the potential for its reuse presents an economic opportunity and a way to address environmental and water scarcity concerns tied to fossil fuels.
“The big issue is how do you reduce the volume of produced water you’re disposing of. That is the exact mission of the consortium,” he said.
New Mexico was targeting a goal of a 30-60% reduction in produced water disposal, Hightower said.
Jason Jennaro is CEO at Breakwater Midstream, a company that transports produced water and treats it. He said the recent seismic activity made finding alternatives to disposal injection more urgent.
With a second commercial-scale water recycling facility, the company estimates it could treat and distribute more than half a million barrels of produced water a day for the Midland Basin.
“Operators are looking for environmentally sustainable alternatives to disposal within these SRAs and seismic clusters, which is why system interconnectivity and commercial recycling is central to sensible stewardship of the water,” Jennaro said.
Regulatory action from the Texas commission, he said, will severely impact operations and force the industry to seek alternatives.
“The agency has said little overall about its plans, despite the potential hazards, said Cindy Weehler, who co-chairs the watchdog group 285 ALL.”
A panel of state lawmakers expressed concerns Friday about plans to truck plutonium shipments through New Mexico, including Santa Fe’s southern edge, and will send letters to state and federal officials asking for more information on the transports.
Two opponents of the shipments — a Santa Fe County commissioner and a local activist — presented the Department of Energy’s basic plan to the Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, provoking a mixture of surprise and curiosity from members.
Several lawmakers agreed transporting plutonium is more hazardous because it is far more radioactive than the transuranic waste — contaminated gloves, equipment, clothing, soil and other materials — that Los Alamos National Laboratory now ships to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground disposal site near Carlsbad.
Joni Arends, of CCNS, said, “As early as November 2013, Nuclear Waste Partnership, LLC, began to physically expand the WIPP underground. The fire and explosion shutdown that work. It remains evident that NWP is more interested in doubling the size of the WIPP underground and keeping it open forever than doing preventive maintenance.”
Due to on-going maintenance problems in the underground disposal facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) requested an extension of time from the New Mexico Environment Department to store waste in the Waste Handling Building. https://wipp.energy.gov/
The request for a 45-day extension to store 13 shipments of plutonium- contaminated waste comes on the heels of on-going maintenance problems at WIPP [PDF]. On October 14th, 2021, the Environment Department approved the extension to November 30th, 2021 [PDF]. All waste shipments to WIPP had previously been stopped from August 25th until September 30th.
Maintenance problems include ventilation problems on the surface in the Waste Handling Building and managing the floors in the underground. The salt can heave and create uneven surfaces where waste is transported for disposal.
COVID-19 infections resurged at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in recent weeks as cases of the virus climbed in the communities surrounding the nuclear waste repository in southeast New Mexico.
There were 14 positive cases among workers at the site or associated with the facility reported between Aug. 17 and 31, per the latest report from Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) – WIPP’s primary operations contractor.
In total, WIPP reported as of Aug. 31, there were 25 active cases.
WIPP officials did not report the identities of patients or companies where the infected workers were employed.
All employees at WIPP were encouraged to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, per an NWP news release, and required to wear protective face masks when indoors, vaccinated or not, and social distance when possible.
The original mission of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southeastern New Mexico had two specific stipulations: it was to be the FIRST and only operating underground nuclear waste repository in U.S; and it is ONLY authorized to take a certain kind of nuclear weapons waste – legacy transuranic (TRU) waste. In December of last year, the U.S. Department of Energy published a notice of intent to expand WIPP. The notice details expansion of the plant in two ways: capacities and types of waste permissible, as well as extended storage/operation timelines. The federal government’s plans would expand the size of the nuclear weapons dump to more than twice its current size and more than is allowed: Federal law and legal agreements with New Mexico clearly limit the amount of waste at WIPP, but the expansion would allow more than that capacity (as described in the April 2020 National Academy of Sciences Report “Review of the Department of Energy’s Plans for Disposal of Surplus Plutonium in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.”) This means an increased volume of waste, as well as an increased number of shipments travelling to WIPP over the entire rest of the century.
“..A 10-year renewal of the permit itself was underway after expiring last year and Don Hancock, nuclear waste program manager at watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center said any modifications to the permit should be included in the full renewal or wait until after its approval.
He said the DOE aimed to “piecemeal” an expansion of WIPP operations and its lifetime to avoid a discussion on broadening the facility’s purpose and keeping it operational indefinitely.
The current permit called for WIPP to be closed by 2024, but officials speculated it could take as long as until 2050 to complete its mission.”
BY: Adrian Hedden Carlsbad Current-Argus
More underground space is needed to complete the mission at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to dispose of nuclear waste, contend WIPP officials during a Monday public meeting.
The U.S. Department of Energy was underway with a permit modification request (PMR) that would amend the DOE’s permit with the State of New Mexico to allow for the mining of two new panels where waste would be disposed of along with drifts connecting the panels to the rest of the underground repository.
At WIPP, transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste consisting of clothing items and equipment irradiated during nuclear activities at DOE sites across the country is disposed of via burying in an underground salt deposit.
To achieve this, panels consisting of seven rooms each are mined about 2,000 feet underground where drums of the waste are emplaced, and the salt gradually collapses to permanently entomb the waste.
But due maintenance issues and a three-year shutdown of underground operations in 2014 following an accidental radiological release, portions of three of panels were left unusable and the DOE hoped to mine new panels to finishing burying the waste.
“The poor performance at LANL I think is exactly why we sued the Department of Energy because we believe the DOE and contractor are in violation of the Consent Order, we need to correct that and from a policy perspective, the Department of Energy has prioritized over New Mexico, cleanup at Savannah River, cleanup at Idaho National Labs, cleanup at all these other places and that is unacceptable to the state of New Mexico since we are the only state that holds the geologic repository known as WIPP,” – New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney
District 43 Rep. Christine Chandler and New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney on Monday both criticized the Department of Energy’s lack of progress in shipping waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in Carlsbad. Their comments were made during the Legislative Radioactive & Hazardous Materials Committee meeting. Chandler is the vice chair of that committee.
Eletha Trujillo, Bureau Chief of the Hazardous Waste Planning Division at the state Energy, Minerals and National Resources Department, earlier in the meeting noted that there are two groups from LANL that ship waste – the DOE Environmental Management group and the DOE National Security Administration group.
“The DOE NNSA group had some safety violations back in February – the spark incident that occurred with a barrel at Los Alamos and so they have not been able to do any shipments. They do have material, but they’re not able to ship anything because they’re under a safety hold by the NRC. When they complete their plan and they get approval again from the NRC then the NNSA will be able to ship again. We don’t know when that’s going to happen. Typically the NNSA tends to have more safety violations than Environmental Management,” Trujillo said.
She added that EM has shipped their material and does not have enough material for a full load.
Resources & Media
Background Information – Problems with Nuclear Waste
These Are OUR Neighborhoods
Mixed Waste Landfill Facts
Mixed Waste Landfill Facts
“This is My Neighborhood” Videos
Playlist: This is My Neighborhood videos
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There are two problems for our species’ survival – nuclear war and environmental catastrophe – and we’re hurtling towards them. Knowingly.
– Noam Chomsky