NMED Shuts Down New WIPP Shaft Amid Concerns About Expiration Of Authorization And COVID-19 Situation


Work on a shaft at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad has been shut down by New Mexico Environment due to issues regarding the expiration of a temporary authorization for the shaft and associated connecting drifts expired.

A new request was filed Sept. 9 by the Department of Energy and its contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership asking for an additional 180 days to excavate Shaft #5, which is 1,200 feet west of the existing air intake shaft at the site, while the process for a Class 3 permit needed to use the shaft when completed, was going on. The initial 180-day authorization for the project was issued in April and expired October 24.

In denying the temporary authorization, NMED’s Resource Protection Director Stephanie Stringer noted that the request for reissuance of the TA did not provide a complete summary of the status of the project, progress to date, or a revised schedule for completion. On Sept. 29, NMED staff made an unannounced in-person inspection of activities under the temporary authorization at the shaft to assure compliance but found the schedule presented to them did not include the Oct. 24 expiration date. NMED was only notified of the implementation of a contingency plan 10 days after the expiration date and the Department was significantly concerned by the lack of appropriate planning for the execution of shaft construction activities

NMED also voiced concern about the COVID-19 situation at WIPP in the November 18 letter to DOE and Nuclear Waste Partnership.

“Given current high incident rate at WIPP, including a reported death of an employee, the circumstances of which are unknown, it is the clear the permittees are unable to successfully mitigate COVID-19 risk to protect human health while conducting the activities under the scope of the request,” the letter states. “NMED has requested standard operating procedures and policies associated with COVID-19 mitigation efforts at WIPP and to date only received a check list akin to a fact sheet.”

On November 25, WIPP reported that through November 17, the facility has recorded 137 COVID cases.  

NMED denied the temporary authorization and order adherence to the contingency plan until the Class 3 Permit Modification Request (PMR) process concludes. If the PMR is denied, the NMED letter says, all construction activities conducted under the former temporary authorization must be reversed at the expense of DOE and Nuclear Waste Partnership within the timeframe specified by NMED. In addition, if further activities are conducted beyond the contingency plan, NMED can impose further sanctions.