BY MAIRE O’NEILL
For the second time in recent weeks, House District 43 Rep. Christine Chandler pushed Department of Energy officials to place a higher priority on the shipment of legacy waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad for storage. Chandler and New Mexico Environment Department Sec. James Kenney have both voiced concern about the number of shipments going to WIPP from other states ahead of New Mexico waste considering that the geologic repository is in the state.
Chandler, who sits on the Legislative Committee for Radioactive and Hazardous Waste, spoke during last week’s committee meeting in response to a presentation by WIPP Site Manager Reinhard Knerr.
Knerr noted that WIPP is receiving an average of five shipments per week and has successfully accepted 178 shipments this year.
“LANL remains a very high priority for our shipments and although we had to reduce shipments in FY20 due to the COVID-19 issues, LANL still accounted for 26 percent of the WIPP shipments. Also, LANL has a single certification program that includes the (National Nuclear Security Administration) and the (Environmental Management) waste programs. It should be noted that NNSA and EM were recently successful in gaining access to the RANT facility for the EM transuranic waste shipment program,” he said. “This is important in that it allows us to ship EM waste out of LANL year round. Previously the EM shipments were done outdoors and were impacted frequently by weather. This is a much more efficient use of resources up at the site. It minimizes the potential for missing shipments and allows us to better account for surge capacity up at Los Alamos”.
Knerr said there are many factors that DOE takes into consideration when prioritizing those shipments.
“From a long-term perspective, DOE evaluates and balances a variety of different factors including regulatory agreements, site treatment plans and closure plans, the impact to national defense, availability of certified waste and so forth. As part of those prioritization efforts, this also considers availability of resources such as equipment and staff at both the generator sites and WIPP. This prioritization is done at the corporate level with input and consideration from the generator sites and WIPP management teams and is something we work very closely together on to make sure we maximize the efficiency of shipments across the complex,” he said.
He noted that there are also near-term impacts that WIPP manages on a day-to-day basis which include inclement weather, unscheduled maintenance, generator site and transuranic waste handling issues that tend to have a direct impact on the ability to keep steady state shipments going.
“One of my focuses over the next year is to try to ensure we continue to have a steady rate of shipments utilizing LANL more efficiently now that EM has routine access to that RANT facility,” Knerr said.
Chandler asked Knerr about the number of shipments from LANL to WIPP in FY20. Knerr responded that 26 percent of shipments or roughly 35 in the year, adding that LANL shipments currently have high priority due to ongoing national defense mission activities. He said as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, national defense mission activities have high priority across the complex and those continue to be maintained. He noted that EM programs across the DOE complex mostly are not supporting national defense missions so operations at those facilities were shut down and suspended.
“At WIPP because we support the national defense mission, we continue to make shipments to the repository,” he said.
Chandler asked, “Who is the ‘we’? This is about LANL shipments to I’m trying to find out how they have high priority”. Knerr said there were shipments made from LANL to WIPP as part of the five shipments a week. Chandler asked if DOE is moving away from legacy waste shipments to defense shipment.
“I wouldn’t say we are moving away from legacy waste. We’re actually right now campaigning legacy shipments from LANL and not shipping NNSA material so I think to say we are moving away from legacy would be a mischaracterization,” Knerr responded.
He said there are 14 shipments scheduled from LANL on the 9-week rolling schedule – two per week until Thanksgiving and then picking up again to two per week after Thanksgiving. And that he believed the bulk of those shipments were from EM – 35 out of 250 for the year.
It’s a balancing act that we go through with the generator sites, WIPP, (DOE) headquarters – where we look to target those types of shipments,” Knerr said.
Chandler asked how DOE justified that in light of there being two national defense laboratories in the state of New Mexico.
“Looking at the re-permitting of WIPP, would you agree that a reasonable condition of that permit might be that a greater percentage of the waste be taken from New Mexico at a higher rate?” Chandler asked. Knerr replied that he was not sure that he understood why that would be a regulatory requirement.
“As a policy maker who represents the citizens of the state of New Mexico, I think that the rationale would be that since we are the repository of the waste, that perhaps our waste should get priority so that the citizens of New Mexico are getting a greater value for the burden they have accepted in allowing the facility to operate,” Chandler said.
She asked Stephanie Stringer, NMED Resource Protection Division Director, if NMED would be willing to consider including a provision in the permit that would require that New Mexico waste be given priority over other states or if that was being considered. Stringer replied that she would have to look into that further and that right now NMED technical staff are just reviewing the application for completeness.
“I encourage you to do so and I’ll encourage the Secretary to do so as well,” Chandler said.
At the Sept. 11 meeting of the committee, Secretary Kenney said the number of shipments going to WIPP right now is of great concern to New Mexico. He said if the state is to follow the pattern other states have used, it would mean having to litigate with DOE to bring New Mexico into the running to get prioritization.
“With the repository in New Mexico, the state should be the priority by which legacy waste is moved to WIPP but it’s not,” Secretary Kenney said. “Right now we’re at the bottom of the list and that’s unacceptable.”