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.
“The coronavirus pandemic demonstrates why we should get cleanup done once and for all,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “What we do as humans ebbs and flows with history, but the radioactive and toxic wastes that we leave behind last longer than our recorded history. We should be acting now.”
The U.S. government’s efforts to clean up Cold War-era waste from nuclear research and bomb making at federal sites around the country has lumbered along for decades, often at a pace that watchdogs and other critics say threatens public health and the environment.
Now, fallout from the global coronavirus pandemic is resulting in more challenges as the nation’s only underground repository for nuclear waste finished ramping down operations Wednesday to keep workers safe.
ARTICLE BY: LAURA WATCHEMPINO | MULTICULTURAL ALLIANCE FOR A SAFE ENVIRONMENT, PUEBLO OF ACOMA
If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s conclusion that it’s safe to move spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants across the country to a proposed storage facility in Lea County sounds vanilla-coated, it’s because the draft environmental impact statement for a Consolidated Interim Storage Facility submitted by Holtec International did not address how the casks containing the spent fuel would be transported to New Mexico.
Every base where legacy nuclear weapons (early-generation) were deployed (Bomber, Fighter Interceptor Squadrons (FIS), Nike Ajax, BOMARC Missile, ICBM), were maintained, or decommissioned, is potentially contaminated with highly classified 91(b) radioactive material (RAM) from the maintenance of the nuclear weapons during the replacing of the polonium-beryllium (Po-Be) TOM initiators.
There is an under-reported news story about radioactive contamination at Air Force bases that were closed and transferred to the public by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC).
The site in Eastern Washington was used during World War II and the Cold War to produce plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. It was left massively contaminated with radioactive and hazardous chemical waste, which is being cleaned up now at a cost of about $2.5 billion a year.
Thousands of Hanford workers will stay home for a second day Tuesday after the Department of Energy announced Sunday evening that the site was going into a temporary planning status to ensure the safety of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only workers essential to the nuclear reservation’s safety and security should report to work, unless they receive a call from their supervisor saying they are needed for planning work, DOE said.
Hanford employs about 9,300 workers, plus some additional subcontractor employees.
New Mexico’s congresspeople called on the federal government to extend a public comment period for an environmental impact statement (EIS) on a proposal by Holtec International to build a nuclear waste repository in southeast New Mexico.
The letter signed by U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and U.S. Reps. Xochitl Torres Small, Ben Ray Lujan Deb Haaland (D-NM), urged the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to extend the 60-day public comment period until public hearings could be held in New Mexico.
The request followed a State ban on gatherings of more than 10 people amid a global outbreak of coronavirus that left thousands dead across the world.
The comment period began Friday as the draft environmental impact statement was published in the Federal Register.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation are requesting that federal regulators extend the public comment period for an environmental review related to a multibillion-dollar complex that would store spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants around the United States.
Santa Fe, NM – Today the Department of Energy’s semi-autonomous nuclear weapons agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), announced that it will not complete a new site-wide environmental impact statement for the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The last site-wide environmental impact statement was in 2008.
Since that time a catastrophic wildfire burned to the western boundary of the Lab (likely to occur more frequently with climate change); an exploding radioactive waste drum improperly prepared by LANL shut down the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for three years, costing taxpayers ~$3 billion to reopen; the full extent and depth of a hexavalent chromium plume contaminating the regional groundwater is still not fully determined; and LANL’s long track record of chronic nuclear safety incidences remain unresolved.
DOE hopes to ramp up shipments of nuclear waste to NM repository
Officials from the U.S. Department of Energy are hoping to ramp up shipments of nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad to about 17 per week by 2023. The facility is currently accepting about 10 per week. To meet the goal of increasing shipments, Acting Manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office Greg Sosson said numerous ongoing infrastructure upgrades at the facility were needed.
“Infrastructure ages. We understand we have a lot more waste stream we’re going to tackle,” Sosson said. “These are really good projects to make sure WIPP is sustainable in the future so we can perform our important mission.”
Sosson, at Monday’s annual WIPP Legislative Breakfast in Santa Fe, said officials plan on WIPP accepting up to 350 shipments of transuranic nuclear waste in the next year from numerous DOE facilities, including 80 from Los Alamos National Laboratory and 195 from Idaho National Laboratory.
But to continue to accept waste at an increasing pace, Sosson said the facility must solve its airflow problem.
“If DOE and LANL continue to treat the public with disdain, it is going to be a long and difficult permitting process. All in all, this first meeting was disappointing and unproductive.” — Joni Arends, of CCNS
This week the renewal of the New Mexico Environment Department hazardous waste permit for Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) began in a very controlled public meeting at the Cities of Gold in Pojoaque. There was no presentation by the Department of Energy (DOE) or its contractor, Triad National Security, LLC, about their plans to renew the application. If the public had questions, they were instructed to write them on a half-sheet comment and question card. There was no explanation about if and how those comments and questions would be answered.
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CCNS has prepared a pre-emptive sample public comment letter you can use to express what needs to be included in LANL’s permit application, including proposals to install confined burn and detonation facilities, and coming into compliance with the federal and state hazardous waste laws and regulations dealing with tank systems (that are used to treat liquid hazardous and radioactive waste) and seismic requirements. The last surface rupture on the Pajarito Plateau fault system was 1,400 years ago – thus requiring additional LANL submittals and NMED review. LANL_Permit_Renewal_App_public_comment_120519 The current ten-year LANL permit expires in late December 2020. Under the regulations, the permit application is due to the Environment Department 180 days before the permit expires, or in late June 2020. https://www.env.nm.gov/hazardous-waste/lanl-permit/ The hazardous waste permit renewal application for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is on the same timeline. https://www.env.nm.gov/hazardous-waste/wipp-permit-page/ CCNS and others have made numerous requests to both LANL and WIPP management to submit their applications in the spring of 2020 to give additional opportunity for the public to review both. At the meeting, CCNS asked when LANL would submit its application. A LANL staff member said they could not disclose the date.
“There’s enough high-level nuclear waste awaiting disposal in the U.S. to fill a football field 65 feet (20 meters) deep. Few states want to house it within their borders.”
“The public defines ‘safe’ as zero risk…the technical community defines ‘safe’ as complying with regulatory standards.” – Robert Halstead, head of the Agency for Nuclear Projects, is currently fighting plutonium shipments to Nevada and spent nuclear fuel transfers to the proposed Yucca Mountain dump.
The plutonium core for the first atomic weapon detonated in 1945 was taken from Los Alamos National Laboratory to a test site in the New Mexico desert in the backseat of a U.S. Army sedan.
Officials put other bomb parts inside a metal container, packed it into a wooden crate and secured it in the steel bed of a truck under a tarp, the U.S. Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration says in a historical account.
Grainy black-and-white photos show special agents and armed military police accompanying the shipment nearly 75 years ago.
“Nuclear materials transportation has evolved since then,” the department posted online last year.
Today, radioactive shipments are hauled in double-walled steel containers inside specialized trailers that undergo extensive testing and are tracked by GPS and real-time apps.
But whether shipping technology has evolved enough to be deemed safe depends on whom you ask.
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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