Watchdogs Fight WIPP Permit Change

By Rebecca Moss | Jan 17, 2019 Updated Jan 18, 2019

Nuclear watchdog organizations filed an appeal Thursday of a state Environment Department-approved permit change they say could allow for 30 percent more nuclear waste to be held at a Southern New Mexico storage site.

The request for a New Mexico Court of Appeals review of the agency’s decision in December, which alters procedures for measuring the volume of waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, was filed on behalf of Nuclear Watch New Mexico and the Southwest Research and Information Center.

The groups allege the permit change violates federal law by allowing plant managers to recalculate the amount of nuclear waste buried underground at WIPP without going through Congress.

The move subtly sidesteps nuclear waste limits outlined under the 1992 Land Withdrawal Act, the groups say.

WIPP managers have said change — which calls for measuring the volume of transuranic materials held at the site rather than the volume of the barrels containing them — will create a more accurate accounting of how much nuclear waste is disposed of at the plant.

The Land Withdrawal Act allows for a limited volume of waste to be held at WIPP. When that capacity is met, the plant is expected to close.

Jennifer Hower, an attorney with the state Environment Department, said the agency is aware of the appeal and “will be continuing its evaluation of both the appeal and the permit.”

WIPP managers and the U.S. Department of Energy requested the change in early 2018. Following a three-day hearing in October in Carlsbad, a hearing officer issued an opinion in favor of the permit change, and then-state Environment Secretary Butch Tongate approved it in December.

Opponents say the process was rushed at the end of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.

It’s unclear whether the Democratic administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will support the permit change under her predecessor or take any action to overturn it.

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