Department of Energy seeks to modify N.M. plant’s nuclear waste permit

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.

More info about the hearing and how to make comments are here: stopforeverwipp.org/home

By: Scott Wyland swyland@sfnewmexican.com | Santa Fe New Mexican May 17, 2021

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.

But antinuclear watchdogs contend the real motive behind adding a shaft to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is to enable the underground site to expand and operate indefinitely.

The U.S. Department of Energy seeks to modify WIPP’s hazardous waste permit so it can build a fifth shaft the agency says is needed to boost ventilation, which was partially blocked in 2014 to contain fallout from a ruptured waste container that closed the facility for three years.

The vent would cost an estimated $197 million and would take three to four years to finish. The state Environment Department scheduled hearings, which will run this week, to allow the public to comment and question officials.

Ever since the 2014 incident, WIPP has lacked the underground air flow for crews to mine, do maintenance and bury waste simultaneously, said Robert Kehrman, a consultant for WIPP’s contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, during a Monday hearing.

“The proposed use of the new shaft is to provide ventilation air that will enhance the safety of the operators in the underground,” Kehrman said.

But critics argue a filter structure being installed at WIPP will supply ample ventilation for current operations and the new shaft is aimed at expanding the site’s waste capacity to keep it going far beyond its original 2024 shutdown date.

Robin Seydel, a regional organic grower, said the shaft is redundant, unless the purpose is to perpetuate WIPP’s waste disposal. In a report, the Government Accountability Office called it a utility shaft, suggesting its purpose was not to improve ventilation, Seydel said.

“Given that WIPP has still serious, outstanding safety issues, this new utility shaft — and I’m not calling it a ventilation shaft — must be denied,” Seydel said.

Kehrman insisted ventilation is impaired by having to filter air. Salty particulates that circulate from the underground beds get trapped in the filters, which then must be thrown away.

But when Steve Zappe, who used to enforce WIPP’s waste permit, grilled Kehrman about why both the shaft and a filter building would be needed, Kehrman had no answer.

Environmental attorney Lindsay Lovejoy questioned Kehrman on the construction’s timeline, noting it wouldn’t be completed until after the current permit expires in 2024. He suggested it fits with plans to keep WIPP going.

Kehrman said a proposed renewal would extend the facility to at least 2052.

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.

Michael Woodward, an attorney representing the U.S. Energy Department, said the purpose of the hearings is to delve into the merits of the air shaft, not to question WIPP’s future as a nuclear repository.

“This particular matter is not the correct place nor the correct time to debate the stakeholders’ concerns about the potential expansion of the WIPP mission,” Woodward said.

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