“This “bait and switch” tactic, where WIPP is marketed with one mission in mind, then greatly expanded decades later, contradicts DOE’s professed dedication to a consent-based process that, in their own words, “focuses on the needs and concerns of people and communities.”
This expansion represents such a dramatic change in WIPP’s core mission that its managers must reassess safety issues and negotiate a new social contract with the public before moving forward.”
The U.S. Department of Energy proposes a dramatic expansion of the type and amount of radioactive waste for burial at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. In March, community groups rallied outside the state Capitol protesting this planned expansion, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sent the Department of Energy a letter in April that cited “ongoing frustration among New Mexicans regarding the lack of meaningful and transparent public engagement from the DOE on waste clean-up, shipments, and long-term plans for the WIPP.”
While it may seem too late to protest a facility that has operated for decades, citizen activists are right to object, and the governor is right to demand the Department of Energy address the concerns of state citizens.
After a quarter-century of planning, design and certification, WIPP opened in 1999. At that time, the safety analyses and licensing were based on the assumption that radioactive elements, mainly about 10 tons of plutonium on clothing, tools and other detritus, would comprise only a small portion of the total waste buried at WIPP. The late Sen. Pete Domenici specifically told the Department of Energy in 2002 that “weapons material wastes can never be simply diluted in order to comply with criteria for WIPP disposal.”
Today, however, the Department of Energy proposes to dilute 48 tons of plutonium taken from nuclear weapons for disposal at WIPP. This “bait and switch” tactic, where WIPP is marketed with one mission in mind, then greatly expanded decades later, contradicts DOE’s professed dedication to a consent-based process that, in their own words, “focuses on the needs and concerns of people and communities.” This expansion represents such a dramatic change in WIPP’s core mission that its managers must reassess safety issues and negotiate a new social contract with the public before moving forward.
Outstanding WIPP safety issues must be resolved. The half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,100 years, but the original WIPP safety assessment period is limited to 10,000 years. The Department of Energy originally asserted that petroleum resources were minimal to nonexistent below WIPP. But today, WIPP is surrounded by oil and gas operations in one of the most prolific oil patches in the United States. The risk that oil drilling may penetrate the repository, or that liquids injected during fracking, advanced recovery and produced-water disposal may migrate into WIPP salt beds, is significant and must be reevaluated.
The Department of Energy has not adequately defined the complex geochemical mobility of plutonium and how it may interact with geologic brine and with carbon dioxide generated by waste decomposition. Additional measures are needed to prevent accidents such as the 2014 drum burst that contaminated 21 workers and released americium and plutonium to the atmosphere. This incident shut the repository down for nearly three years and required a $2 billion cleanup.
Pursuant to the federal Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, more than $7.5 million has been paid in compensation and medical bills for Department of Energy WIPP workers and contractors diagnosed with cancer or other illness resulting from exposure to radiation, beryllium or silica. Several additional nuclear waste incidents have occurred at WIPP in 2022. The culture of complacency that exists in the Department of Energy’s waste management program, and the ease with which policy decisions can disregard fundamental science, must be changed.
If the Department of Energy wants to change WIPP’s mission, there can be no shortcuts on safety or public engagement. As wardens of the nation’s defense nuclear waste, every citizen in New Mexico deserves to have a say in the technical, political and social issues related to WIPP’s expanded plutonium mission.
Geologist Dennis McQuillan is the former chief scientist of the New Mexico Environment Department and lives in Santa Fe. Rodney Ewing is a regents professor emeritus in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico and co-director of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.