WIPP: Waste Calculation Change Discussed

BY ADRIAN C. HEDDEN, Carlsbad  currentargus.com

“Calculation change will not impact facility’s capacity”

[We at NukeWatch do believe that this proposed change WILL expand WIPP’s capacity and are working hard to stop it.]

Officials at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant said a proposed modification to facility’s permit to dispose of nuclear waste will have little impact on WIPP operations or its maximum capacity for emplacement. The modification regards how the facility tracks the volume of transuranic (TRU) waste permanently stored in the underground repository.

Instead of counting the outer-most container, often an overpack, the Department of Energy is petitioning the New Mexico Environment Department to modify’s the DOE’s permit to count the actual volume of the waste itself.

The DOE hopes to avoid counting air as waste.

With the current method of volume calculation, the facility would be about half full, records show.

If the modification is accepted, WIPP would be at about one third of its capacity.

The permit modification request (PMR) filed in January was discussed during a Tuesday public hearing at New Mexico State University Carlsbad.

The DOE intends to continue tracking and reporting the overpack volumes to NMED.

By changing how waste is counted against the LWA maximum, the facility could stay open longer.

“The applicants are merely seeking to clarify how to account for the waste disposed of in the underground repository,” Woodward said. “This should be a very simple modification. We’re talking about the total volume of the canisters used to emplace the waste in the salt bed.”

He said the current permit does not clarify how to track the waste volume.

Buy PhotoAttendees listen to a public hearing about WIPP’s permit modification, Oct. 23, 2018 at New Mexico State University Carlsbad. (Photo: Adrian Hedden | Current-Argus)

“The permit does not mandate how waste volumes are calculated,” Woodward said. “It is the conflict between these two volumes that has led the applicant to seeking the modification, to clarify.”

Permit modifications related to hazardous waste are common, Woodward said, and NMED has the authority to alter permits and regulate operations at WIPP.

“Permit modifications to hazardous waste permits happen all the time,” he said. “This is not unusual and it’s clearly authorized under the regulations. The NMED has full authority to regulate this facility.”

Woodward contradicted critics of the proposal, who he said worried the DOE was looking to circumvent NMED’s authority for a move that could be a risk to the environment.

“There’s absolutely no attempt by the applicant to remove authority of the NMED,” he said. “It will have no effect on public safety or the environment.”

Scott Kovac with Nuclear Watch New Mexico said the change could make WIPP’s volume tracking needlessly complicated.

“This modification doesn’t clarify anything,” he said. “It muddies the current waste volume tracking system. Having two volumes to calculate is inherently more confusing.”

Bob Kehrman, a retired former NWP employee who worked on the PMR said it does not change WIPP’s overall capacity under the LWA.

He said that would require changes to federal law and such a proposal would need to go before Congress.

“The Permit modification request is intended to clarify how the permittees track and report waste disposed of in the facility,” Kehrman said. “Traditionally, this volume has been tracked and reported based on the volume of the outermost container.

“The permit does not specifically say that’s how it should be done. One of the things this does is clarify how it should be tracked and reported. We’re not changing this definition.”

More: Ground broken on WIPP’s new ventilation system, project to be completed by 2022

Steve Zappe, formerly with the NMED, questioned how the issue came to light decades after WIPP opened.

“You expressed that you did not consider the amount of overpacking that would take place,” he said to Kehrman. “What caused you to not anticipate that? I call it the surprise factor.”

Kehrman said the overpacks are mostly used to account for shipping requirements, or when a drum of waste received at WIPP is damaged or lacks integrity.

He said the practice is required by the facility’s permit.

“The overpacks are driven by transportation,” Kehrman said. “They have to follow certain shipping requirements. The principal driver would be shipping. Generally, the process has to do with radiological limitations.

“The disadvantage is it adds a lot of empty space. Traditionally, that was counted as TRU waste.”

Not ‘real’ waste?

Janet Greenwald of the Albuquerque-based Citizens for Alternatives to Nuclear Dumping (CARD) said the conversation about WIPP’s capacity would not happen if there were other repositories in America.

She said it was unfair for New Mexico alone to accept the nation’s nuclear waste.

More: Holtec vows safe transport of spent nuclear fuel to Carlsbad and Hobbs

And the facility impacts more people than just Carlsbad, Greenwald said.

“When I first heard that name, I just assumed that this was going to be one of many repositories,” she said of WIPP. “It was a pilot plant, an experimental plant. We accepted it was big, but I don’t think I or most New Mexicans accept WIPP as the only repository for military nuclear waste. I don’t think that they should.

“I know the people in Carlsbad are very dedicated to WIPP, and it’s very right that they receive compensation for their support. It’s not just the people in Carlsbad that take the risks.”

Greenwald said over packs are essential to maintaining safe operations at WIPP, and should be counted against the site’s overall capacity.

“There are limits on what degree of radioactivity you can ship,” she said. “Inside those drums, there are highly radioactive slurries that need to be packed in multiple layers to keep the workers safe.”

Artesia resident and community organizer Noel Marquez said the New Mexican public was ignored during the permit modification process.

He said the people deserve a stronger voice.

“We’ve been disenfranchised from the whole process,” Marquez said. “A lot of people are making an honest living without stigmatizing our area as the radioactive waste dump of the entire United States. Future generations are not being considered.

“The Carlsbad business community does not represent me or the millions of people in New Mexico and Texas.”

Buy PhotoCarlsbad Mayor Pro Tem Eddie Rodriguez discusses volume tracking at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, using a bag of chips as a prop, Oct. 23, 2018 at New Mexico State University Carlsbad. (Photo: Adrian Hedden | Current-Argus)

Carlsbad Mayor Pro Tem Eddie Rodriguez said he supported the modification, and used a bag of Lay’s potato chips to demonstrate why both volumes were important.

He said a grocer must know the size of the bag, to account for shelf space, while a parent must know exactly how many chips can feed his family.

“We are discussing the full bag of chips versus the amount of chips in the bag,” Rodriguez said. “I consider myself a logical and factual man. Toward that means, the method we have now of calculating the volume isn’t logical. Both volumes are very important.”

New Mexico Rep. Cathrynn Brown (R-55) said the PMR is about properly using government resources. She urged NMED to accept the application as soon as possible.

“The PMR is about better stewardship of government resources,” Brown said. “There has been a lot of talk about not counting empty space against the waste limit. When I heard this request was coming, I said ‘It’s about time.’”

“Void space is not real waste. It’s not waste at all. I think it’s time we adopted the modification that’s been requested. I encourage the department to grant the permit.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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