BY DON HANCOCK
Southwest Research and Information Center
Although more than 97 percent of almost 300 commenters opposed a permit for a new shaft to expand the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the Department of Energy (DOE) and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) have cooperated to allow the shaft construction to begin before completing the required public hearing process.
More people can be involved to object to the violation of the public process requirements and to stop the WIPP expansion if they submit comments to NMED by Tuesday, August 11. Comments can be emailed to: Ricardo.Maestas@state.nm.us
Sample comments and additional information are available at: nuclearactive.org
Why comment? Unless people object to stop the WIPP expansion, it will be the only disposal site and will operate indefinitely, essentially forever, contrary to federal law and agreements with the State of New Mexico. DOE is doing an end run around the people of our state by not allowing the full public comment and hearing process before beginning construction.
WIPP is supposed to be the first of multiple deep geologic repositories to dispose of long-lived radioactive waste. The WIPP Land Withdrawal Act of 1992 limits the facility to up to 6.2 million cubic feet of transuranic (plutonium-contaminated) waste from nuclear weapons production, consistent with the Consultation and Cooperation Agreement between DOE and the State of New Mexico. The four shafts and underground disposal rooms were designed to handle that amount of waste. The state’s WIPP permit states that waste disposal operations end in 2024.
But since there are no other repositories, DOE has numerous plans to expand the amounts and types of waste coming to WIPP. An essential element of the site’s physical expansion is the new shaft and associated underground tunnels. On August 15, 2019, DOE applied for a permit modification to allow that expansion. During the 60-day comment period and after, those almost 300 commenters were submitted.
Ignoring the objections, on January 16, 2020, DOE applied for a Temporary Authorization (TA) to allow construction to begin before the required additional public comment and public hearings are held. On January 27, Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) strongly objected to the TA as being not allowed by the regulations and prejudicing the required public process. After consulting with DOE, NMED approved the TA on April 24, so that construction could begin on April 27.
NMED waited to issue the draft permit until June 12, thereby delaying the start of the next required 60 days for public comment, followed by negotiations, and a public hearing.
SRIC has also filed two petitions with the New Mexico Court of Appeals, asking for the TA to be held invalid and shaft construction to be stopped. Nos. S-1-SC-38372 and S-1-SC-38373.
SRIC and other individuals and organizations urge people to make their comments about the new shaft to support the required public hearing process and make it clear that the law and agreements limiting WIPP must be enforced.