Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

ABOUT

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.

History of WIPP

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.

Browse this page to keep updated on NukeWatch and other local community groups efforts to STOP FOREVER WIPP

The mission of the Stop Forever WIPP Coalition is to stop WIPP expansion and ensure health and safety issues are fully addressed.

STAY INFORMED:

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Video Presentation on WIPP Expansion - February 5, 2022

Community Responses & Criticisms to WIPP Forum July 7

The U.S. Department of Energy and the Office of Environmental Management held a Presentation and “Community Forum” for Santa Fe on the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), formatted as a hybrid in-person and Zoom meeting on Thursday, July 7, 2022.

Nuclear Watch New Mexico is extremely disappointed and unsatisfied with the outcome of this "forum" and is not alone in criticizing both the substance of the meeting and the format. See more criticisms below from others who attended:

Read the following Letter to the Editor in the Santa Fe New Mexican paper, July 19:
On the Mark

Kudos to Scott Wyland for his balanced and accurate description of what occurred during the July 7 community forum to address the public's concerns about proposals and plans related to the storage of plutonium-contaminated waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad. ("Critics unhappy with nuclear panel," July 9)

As a virtual participant, I judged the forum to be nothing more than a dog-and-pony show by the U.S. Department of Energy and WIPP's managers: They never intended to have a meaningful and open exchange about the public's concerns. With a seeming ethos of "asking forgiveness is easier than obtaining permission, we shouldn't be surprised if this and future Energy Department proposals are just more stealth actions, which will ultimately turn The Land of Enchantment into America's Nuclear Waste Dump.

Dick Goldsmith

Santa Fe


More Recent LTEs:
My View Cynthia Weehler

WIPP 'chat' fell short of exchange of information

"Let's chat about WIPP," said General Manager Reinhardt Knerr ("Letters to the Editor," July 7) on the day of his planned public forum for the good people of Northern New Mexico.

Well, let's do chat. Your community meeting for the public was a chat disaster. Chats are back-and-forth exchanges of information. Chats don't gag one side so the other is the only one talking. Your "chat" was a mind-numbing, 48-slide Power Point and lecture advertising the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

After this, we were told — as if we were children — to write any questions we had on index cards and turn them in to the enforcer — er, I mean moderator. He then chose the questions he wanted answered and, for a few more minutes, a one-way "chat" occurred. After that, "participants" were invited into a room, only a few at a time, to talk one on one with the presenters. This "divide and conquer" strategy meant no one but the two "chatting" could hear the question and the answer.

Watch the video recording of the full meeting with the chat included below or on YouTube here

This wasn't our first rodeo dealing with the Department of Energy, and we were prepared to ask for what would meet our needs. I stood at the end of the formal presentation to ask if I could speak for a moment — and that's as far as I got. I was told forcefully, "No ma'am" and, "You need to sit down." It was eerie to see the previously jolly demeanor of the presenters turn into a vision of your worst high school teacher.

The response was telling. I had no idea the Department of Energy/WIPP presenters were so frightened of the public. The very idea that we might actually try to interact with them turned them into autocratic bullies who were afraid of what we might "chat" about. The Department of Energy is afraid to meet with us as equals.

Because we have no power and are not even allowed to speak to this overbearing agency, we've asked our congressional representative to host a meeting between the Department of Energy and the public. We've asked the governor to meet with us to discuss this. Instead, we hear the "chatting" of crickets.

The Department of Energy is creating a whole new mission for WIPP that puts the public at incredibly increased risk. That alone should guarantee us a voice. Instead, we're offered an Orwellian "chat" that insults as it silences.

Cynthia Weehler is co-chair of 285ALL, grew up in Roswell and wants those at risk to know about it. She lives in Santa Fe. More reaction to the recent WIPP "chat" is available at santafenewmexican.com.


Citizens say WIPP conversation was anything but

One cannot hear with out deep anger the satisfaction and pride expressed by three men to an overflowing crowd at the recent "update" to the increasing capacity of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. From 300 shipments of radioactive waste across New Mexico highways into deep vaults, they seemed pleased that 600 is soon to become 680 a year, with ever-increasing shiploads a year indefinitely. While the Carlsbad salt beds are to encroach over time over these lethal containers, high-level radioactive waste remains dangerous to humans and the more than human life forms for millennia. Realizing this, Finland has isolated its radioactive waste on an island, Onkalo, filled the main access tunnel with rubble and concrete and sealed the entrance.

No one working on the project today will be alive, yet the radioactive waste receptacle must last for 100,000 years — that's as long back as the Ice Age, before homo sapiens had arrived; that is longer than any man-made structure has survived to date (more than pyramids, more than Stonehenge). As geologists agree, WIPP and its radioactivity will last forever. Who can guarantee that responsible guardianship of this area in New Mexico can be sustained? What "company" or what "government" will be here to safeguard what must be isolated from all others life forms, from the water, from escaping into the air? What language will be understood 100,000 years hence? Finland has chosen a skull and cross bones to mark the spot. What will New Mexicans choose?

M. Eagle

Santa Fe


Not a chat

Last night's Community Forum and Open House on WIPP, sponsored by the Department of Energy, had all the hallmarks of a meeting designed to shut out informed questions from local citizens. First, there were no handouts so we relied on a power point presentation that was difficult to see and no laser pointer to show complex information. Talk about acronyms, jargon, and bureaucratic terms with no explanation for the lay citizen! What are "upwinders?" Is my property north of WIPP an upwinder for plutonium powder accident? The U.S. Department of Energy presenter could hardly be heard? As a lay citizen, I came to learn and ask questions. There were too many barriers to do either with the poor AV system and no time for a majority of questions to be addressed. If DOE truly wants to provide information to the public, get some coaching on making clear presentations. Unless — all this was by design to create less than full transparency. You were out of luck if you had come to get information. You couldn't hear; you couldn't see; and there was no time left to address questions sufficiently.

Christine Marchand

Eldorado


Undemocratic

I attempted to record the WIPP town hall in Santa Fe on behalf of my organization, Available Media. At first I was told I could not video record at all. I reminded the security people that this is a democracy where freedom of the press is valued and was eventually assigned a corner of the small room allocated for the meeting. I recorded a long dialogue by WIPP representatives on their many accomplishments, along with thwarted attempts by the public to speak about their concerns. Some of our political representatives were there as well as leaders of communities concerned about transportation of surplus plutonium which is part of WIPP's planned expansion. None were allowed to speak. Some were treated rudely.

At the end of the hour-plus DOE dialogue, 15 minutes were allotted for audience questions. I watched the questions being carefully filtered. After the public meeting when individuals asked WIPP officials questions one on one and received answers, I was not allowed to record the exchanges. I fought for my country but this kind of repression was not what I fought for. Democracy took a blow last night in Santa Fe and we have WIPP officials and their henchman-like security people to thank for that.

Bob Aly

Dixon


Bait-and-switch meeting

The "community forum" that the manager of the DOE, Carlsbad Field Office promised to the people of Santa Fe on July 7, in which we could "chat about WIPP," was anything but a forum. DOE put on a dog-and-pony show and forbade the people, including an elected representative, to speak.

With this bait-and-switch meeting, indeed with the whole DOE scheme to extend the lifetime and mission of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, DOE is pissing on our boots and telling us it is raining.

James Randall Oyster

Santa Fe


Not helpful

I tried to "chat" with the Department of Energy officials about WIPP at their Santa Fe meeting as they had been invited us to do. About 200 people attended both in-person and online. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to speak our questions directly and DOE left almost no time to answer them anyway. DOE seemed unprepared for the high turnout and was rude to members of the public, at least one journalist and at least one elected official. Many in-person attendees had to watch the presentation on TV and none of the online public could see, or chat with presenters, during the poster display.

DOE has long resisted describing future plans for expanding WIPP to the public, even refusing to allow the phrase "WIPP expansion" to be mentioned during hearings. The public was hoping finally to find some transparency on this issue from DOE, but that didn't happen at this meeting.

Deborah Reade


Watch the video recording of the full meeting with the chat included below or on YouTube here

WIPP Updates

On this solemn anniversary, another look at a nuclear future

“Continuing to develop weapons that don’t just kill but have the potential to decimate the planet is a seemingly accepted part of modern life.

Yet on this anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, it is useful to consider whether humanity can find a different path forward.”

OUR VIEWThe Santa Fe New Mexican | August 8, 2022 santafenewmexican.com

August is a particularly dark month in human history.

On Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, humanity revealed it had the ability to destroy itself; the United States chose to drop atomic bombs first on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki to force Japan to surrender and end World War II. The destruction was horrific, with tens of thousands of people killed, buildings leveled and thousands more dying of lingering radiation sickness in the years that followed.

New Mexico played an outsized role in the bomb’s deployment. It was developed by the Manhattan Project scientists in the then-secret city of Los Alamos and tested at White Sands. Today, Los Alamos National Laboratory continues its mission of solving national security challenges, with the current emphasis gearing up to manufacture the plutonium pits at the core of nuclear weapons.

By 2026, LANL is supposed to be ready to make 30 pits a year, with another 50 pits annually coming from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina by 2030.

Continue reading

Critics displeased with forum on nuclear waste site

What was billed as a public forum in Santa Fe for the underground nuclear waste disposal site in Carlsbad turned out to be a lengthy slide show with only a handful of questions addressed, angering activists and at least one public official.

“[Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen] wrote a letter to federal emergency management officials…complaining about how the forum was conducted, she said. One official wrote back, expressing sympathy and saying the forums are supposed to foster public participation and boost transparency, Hansen said. If those are the goals, Hansen added, then this forum failed miserably.”

“I feel the people were treated with such disrespect,” Hansen said.

The Santa Fe New Mexican | July 8, 2022 santafenewmexican.com

The 100-plus people who attended the Thursday night forum for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center were told to jot down their questions on index cards about the repository, which has stirred controversy since it opened in 1999.

WIPP takes radioactive materials from Los Alamos National Laboratory as well as out-of-state sources such as the Hanford Site and Idaho National Laboratory.

The containers of transuranic waste — mainly contaminated gloves, clothing, equipment, soil and other materials — are entombed in salt caverns 2,150 feet underground. WIPP was initially planned to bury waste for 25 years, but federal managers now say it can run until at least 2083.

Continue reading

Feds replace underground waste storage management with $3 billion deal

“A watchdog group criticized the Energy Department for choosing a subsidiary of Bechtel, a former partner in the consortium Los Alamos National Security LLC, which improperly packaged the waste drum that exploded at WIPP.”

“A private corporation that blew up WIPP operations in 2014 is now going to run WIPP?” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “Does the Department of Energy have no contractor accountability?”

The Santa Fe New Mexican | July 8, 2022 santafenewmexican.com

The U.S. Energy Department has awarded a $3 billion, 10-year contract to a Bechtel subsidiary to replace the current operator running the underground waste storage site in Carlsbad.

Tularosa Basin Range Services, based in Reston, Va., will take over daily operations of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant after Nuclear Waste Partnership’s contract expires Sept. 30.

Tularosa Basin, whose parent company is Chicago-based Bechtel National Inc., was among five bidders, and its proposal was “determined to be the best value to the government,” the Energy Department said in a statement.

The contract will go for four years, with six one-year extensions available after that.

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WIPP Officials Hold Information Meeting In Santa Fe, Knerr Chats With Los Alamos Reporter

Reinhard Knerr, left, chats with Scott Kovac of Nuclear Watch New Mexico during the one-on-one discussion at the WIPP information meeting Thursday in Santa Fe. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com

“…At this point Commissioners Hansen and Hamilton walked out as well as several others. Greenwald and others placed green tape over the mouths.

As attendees were being invited to the one-on-one conversations in the next room, Nuclear Watch New Mexico executive director Jay Coghlan shouted out that the 2014 incident that shut down WIPP had not been mentioned during the presentation or the fact that half of WIPP is being reserved for waste from pit production. He called the meeting a “scam”.”

BY LOS ALAMOS REPORTER | July 10, 2022 losalamosreporter.com

The Los Alamos Reporter sat down late Thursday afternoon with Reinhard Knerr, Manager of the Department of Energy’s Site Office in Carlsbad for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Knerr and Sean Dunagan, President and Project Manager for Nuclear Waste Partnership, LLC, the contractor operating WIPP, were in Santa Fe to provide an update on WIPP at a public forum Thursday evening.

As background, WIPP is the nation’s only deep geologic repository. Located about 26 miles east of Carlsbad , the facility is authorized to accept transuranic (“TRU”) radioactive waste that is placed 2,150 feet below the surface in a mined bedded salt formation where eight excavated “panels” each with seven rooms and two access drifts lie within some 120 acres that have been mined for the facility. Four shafts connect the underground with the surface and a fifth shaft provides most of the air intake for the underground.

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Stay Informed of All Permit-Related Happenings at WIPP! Sign Up for Updates:

The New Mexico Environment Department maintains a Facility Mailing List to which you can add your name and address to get the latest information – just email Ricardo Maestas at the New Mexico Environment Department at ricardo.maestas@state.nm.us and ask to be added to the list.  Or mail your request with your mailing address to:

Ricardo Maestas

New Mexico Environment Department-Hazardous Waste Bureau

2905 Rodeo Park East, Bldg. 1

Santa Fe, NM 87505

WIPP also uses the facility mailing list to inform you about opportunities to provide public comments.  NMED provides their list to WIPP.

More Info and signup options:

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Resources for Keeping Informed on the Complex Problem of Nuclear Waste Expansion: Two Local NM Interviews with Activist Cindy Wheeler

Listen to the two interviews below to be reminded of the issues connected to the complex problem of nuclear waste expansion:

Governor Backs Citizens’ Concerns About Diluted Plutonium in Letter

[Michelle Lujan Grisham] sided with residents’ contention — which she has stated in the past — New Mexico shouldn’t be home to the nation’s sole nuclear waste storage site.

“The petitioners would like to see the DOE develop a new disposal site in a state other than New Mexico,” she wrote in the letter.

 | April 18, 2022 santafenewmexican.com

WIPP will get more space
A continuous miner operates at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asked the Department of Energy in a letter Monday to create another nuclear waste plant outside the state. Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is asking the Department of Energy to be more open about its plans to dilute and dispose of surplus plutonium and to address concerns by New Mexico residents about the radioactive materials that would be shipped through the state multiple times.

In a letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, the governor cited a 1,146-signature petition her office received in which residents expressed uneasiness about the agency’s vague plans to dilute dozens of metric tons of plutonium — which partly would be done at Los Alamos National Laboratory — before disposing of it at an underground site in Carlsbad.

Continue reading

Discovery of radioactive liquid pauses work at US nuke dump

“Independent federal investigators last month raised concerns about whether cost overruns and missed construction deadlines will continue at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant…State regulators are weighing a permit change that some critics have said could lead to expanded repository operations. A decision is expected later this year.

BY | April 11, 2022 AP NEWS apnews.com

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — An area at the U.S. government’s nuclear waste repository in southeastern New Mexico was evacuated over the weekend after workers handling a shipping container discovered a small amount of radioactive liquid inside it.

There was no indication of airborne contamination and testing of workers’ hands and feet turned up no contamination after the discovery was made late Saturday in a bay where containers are processed before being taken underground for disposal, officials said in a statement.

“The event at the site has been secured. There is no risk of radiological release and there is no risk to the public or the environment,” plant officials said their most recent statement, issued late Saturday.

Workers evacuated from area of Carlsbad nuclear waste repository after ‘abnormal event’

Officials at the facility say there was no risk of radioactive contamination.

BY | April 9, 2022 Carlsbad Current Argus currentargus.com

Carlsbad led to the evacuation of workers Saturday night from an area of the facility where waste is prepared for disposal.

The incident was reported at about 8:20 p.m. in the waste handling building, where shipments of nuclear waste are prepared for disposal in the underground repository.

Officials said there was no risk of a radiological release after the event was investigated.

As a drum of waste was being processed, liquid was found at the bottom of the container which tested positive for radioactive contamination, per a news release from WIPP officials.

All personnel in the area were evacuated and tested for contamination, and operations were temporarily paused.

Watchdog has concerns with projects at U.S. nuclear repository

“Nuclear watchdog groups have been critical of the Energy Department. They have raised concerns about the repository’s future, citing the increase in defense-related waste that will need to be disposed of when production of key components for the country’s nuclear arsenal ramps up at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.”

 | March 15, 2022 santafenewmexican.com

ALBUQUERQUE — There’s no way of knowing if cost increases and missed construction deadlines will continue at the only United States underground nuclear waste repository, according to a federal watchdog report made public Tuesday.

The Government Accountability Office outlined the concerns in its report, noting the U.S. Energy Department is not required to develop a corrective action plan for addressing the root causes of challenges at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Southern New Mexico.

A multimillion-dollar project is underway at the underground facility to install a new ventilation system so full operations can resume after a radiation leak in 2014 forced the repository’s closure for nearly three years.

Continue reading

STOP FOREVER WIPP! Specific News to WIPP Closing Plans

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National Academy of Scientists Report

Review of the Department of Energy's Plans for Disposal of Surplus Plutonium in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant 2020

Action Alerts

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Quotes

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