The Southwest Research and Information Center previously filed a motion to the court in April, seeking to block the New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED) temporary approval (TA) of plans for the shaft that saw no public hearing or comment process.
The $100 million project to build the shaft was intended to increase airflow to the WIPP underground, where transuranic (TRU) waste is permanently disposed of, to allow emplacement of waste and mining of panels where it is emplaced to occur simultaneously.
A nuclear watchdog group in Albuquerque filed two appeals in New Mexico Supreme Court last week, seeking to block the construction of a utility shaft at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
TRU waste comprises of clothing and other materials including equipment contaminated by radiation during nuclear research and development activities.
In two June 30 motions, the Center sought to invalidate the TA for the project, while also petitioning the court for a review of the dismissal of the April motion.
Nuclear Waste Program Director at the Center Don Hancock said he hoped the motions would force the court to re-analyze NMED’s approval process of the TAs and find it invalid.
He said the court dismissed the Center’s previous motion because the U.S. Department of Energy had not made a final decision on if the shaft would be built.
But the TA granted a year for construction, Hancock said, and would likely result in the shaft being built if allowed to stand.
Don Hancock asks representatives of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to consider the repercussion of allowing the construction of a spent nuclear fuel rod interim storage facility near Carlsbad, N.M. during a scoping meeting May 3.Buy Photo
Don Hancock asks representatives of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to consider the repercussion of allowing the construction of a spent nuclear fuel rod interim storage facility near Carlsbad, N.M. during a scoping meeting May 3. (Photo: Jessica Onsurez Current-Argus)
“They (the court) need to not take a lawyer’s word for it,” Hancock said. “The TA gives them one year for construction. NMED ignored the comments and went ahead and approved it. Now, they’ve said they might change their mind. That’s not credible.”
Hancock argued the utility shaft was not needed for ongoing WIPP operations, but for an intended expansion of the facility that would keep it open longer than previously agreed to and holding more waste.
He said any expansion in WIPP’s capacity and lifetime should be brought before the public before work to do so was allowed.
A draft permit for the project was issued by NMED on June 12, opening a public comment period scheduled to continue until 5 p.m., Aug. 11.
Anyone interested in commenting was asked to submit via email or in writing to WIPP Project Manager Ricardo Maestas at NMED’s Hazardous Waste Bureau, 2905 Rodeo Park Drive East, Building 1, Santa Fe New Mexico or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The public may also request a public hearing at the same address and email.
In a report from NMED, the agency defended its drafting of the permit as a needed measure to increase airflows in the underground facility combined with a project to construct a New Filter Building to rebuild WIPP’s ventilation system.
The DOE can request future permit modification requests (PMRs), read the report, as long as WIPP’s capacity does not exceed 6.2 million cubic feet of waste as stipulated in the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act.
“NMED has concluded that the proposed new shaft is important for current underground operations and worker safety,” read the report.
But Hancock contended the construction of the shaft was part of a broader effort to increase the amount of waste brought to WIPP beyond the legal limit.
“The issue here is that this new shaft is needed to expand the WIPP facility, so it can handle more waste and stay open for longer that it’s supposed to,” Hancock said. “The public has not had a chance to discuss and talk about any of that.
“DOE wants to do this all in piece-meal fashion so that the public and state can never look at the big picture.”
Bobby St. John, spokesperson for Nuclear Waste Partnership – the DOE-hired contractor to run WIPP’s operations – declined to comment on the Center’s allegations.
“The (DOE) Carlsbad Field Office and NWP have no comment on the appeal by Southwest Research and Information Center,” St. John said. “WIPP will continue working with NMED.”
NMED spokesperson Maddy Hayden said the TA was granted after a “thorough” examination by the agency, and that the authorization did not approve of use of the shaft, just its construction.
“While we can’t comment extensively on a pending legal action, the Department spent a substantial amount of time thoughtfully and thoroughly evaluating the TA request and stands by the decision to approve the activities in the TA, which are limited to the excavation of the ventilation shaft itself but not the use of the ventilation shaft,” Hayden said.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, email@example.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.