A Department of Energy proposal to dilute and dispose of plutonium waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad is ready for public comment — the draft environmental impact statement, all 412 pages of it, has been released.
“Stay alert for notices of meetings and time for public comment. There’s no guarantee informed opposition will change plans by agencies intent on certain action, but speaking up beats staying quiet. Oh, and think about this: before rushing full speed ahead to produce even more plutonium pits, it’s time to at least try to find a way to dispose of the waste we’ve already created.”
[NukeWatch will provide sample comments and make it as easy as possible to participate in the public comment process for the WIPP Permit and Plutonium Waste Disposal plans]
The public can weigh in, whether in writing or by showing up for public hearings that will take place early next year.
Buckle up. This is going to be a contentious discussion.
The U.S. wants to be rid of 34 metric tons of plutonium bomb cores, or pits, stored at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo. The pits are Cold War legacies; because WIPP is restricted in the type of waste it can take, before disposing of it, the material must be diluted. Thus, the term, dilute and dispose. The Department of Energy’s decision about the waste was announced two years ago, but with no details.
At one point the Energy Department wanted to turn Cold War plutonium into a mixed oxide fuel for use in commercial nuclear plants. That would have happened at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, but billions in cost overruns and delays hamstrung the effort, and the Trump administration killed the project in 2018.
It chose the dilute-and-disposal plan.
The draft statement fleshes out just what would happen to prepare the pits for disposal — in a facility, we might point out, that currently is seeking a renewal of its hazardous waste permit from the state of New Mexico. WIPP is open, but state Environment Department Secretary James Kenney and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham want more oversight of waste disposal at the plant.
That back and forth is separate from the Energy Department dilute-and-disposal proposal, but the permit discussion provides context for the coming fierce debate.
Here’s what community members already are questioning. The Energy Department plan includes considerable time on highways carrying radioactive material, including trucking the stuff at least twice through New Mexico. That would include trips on congested corridors inside the southern edge of Santa Fe. First, the material would be shipped to LANL, where workers would convert it to oxidized powder. From Los Alamos, the powder would be transported to Savannah River.
There, crews would add an adulterant to make the powder unusable in weapons. The dilution portion taken care of, the material would be taken to WIPP, the underground disposal site.
That’s a lot of time on the highway for radioactive material, especially considering conditions on Interstate 40. It seems an expensive and inefficient way of disposing of plutonium — a 3,300-mile trip, ending with the materials deep beneath the ground at WIPP.
That’s a site, by the way, that only was supposed to store low-level transuranic waste — the contaminated gloves, equipment, clothing, soil and other materials that need to be disposed of safely. The WIPP mission continues to be expanded, another reason the state must increase its oversight. We expect elected officials — whether the governor or members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation — to speak up further about possible plutonium pit disposal, too.
There are questions about whether the pits need to be removed from Pantex at all, or whether work to make them inoperable in weapons could take place where they currently are being held. That would mean improving storage facilities, but eliminate a lot of highway traffic. Barring keeping the pits in place, all waste roads lead to New Mexico, That why residents here have a huge stake in determining what happens to these pits.
Stay alert for notices of meetings and time for public comment. There’s no guarantee informed opposition will change plans by agencies intent on certain action, but speaking up beats staying quiet. Oh, and think about this: before rushing full speed ahead to produce even more plutonium pits, it’s time to at least try to find a way to dispose of the waste we’ve already created.
Maybe, just maybe, not all the waste has to be buried in New Mexico. Or driven across New Mexico highways. It’s a big country.