Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) believes a previous environmental impact statement from 24 years ago contains enough data for their plans to build two new panel areas to dispose of nuclear waste at the underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southern New Mexico. An initial DOE report on the feasibility of adding an 11th and 12th nuclear waste disposal panel at WIPP was followed up with a supplemental analysis (SA) in April 2021. The SA reported the new panels “do not represent a substantial change and will not impact the environment in a significant manner not already evaluated.”

In 1979 Congress authorized DOE’s WIPP facility, located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, and it was constructed during the 1980s. Congress limited WIPP as a permanent stockpiling repository for nuclear debris of low-level transuranic defense-generated (TRU) waste composed of equipment and materials radiated during nuclear activities. While TRU is less potent than nuclear reactor byproducts, the waste still remains radioactive for approximately 24,000 years.

WIPP is located more than 2,000 feet underground. The site’s bedded salt deposit was selected for its ability to permanently isolate radioactive waste from the surrounding environment. Initially the WIPP site was planned to have eight large disposal panels mined out, with each panel consisting of seven rooms for storing the waste. An accidental radiological release in 2014 contaminated the storage site and 1.8 panels were restricted and abandoned. One or more drums of plutonium-contaminated waste, packaged and shipped by Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) exploded, releasing radiation below and above ground.

The recent SA from DOE contends a previous environmental impact statement from 1997 that analyzed mining of the initial panels for WIPP was adequate enough for construction of two new proposed panels. DOE stated that no new impact studies are needed under the National Environmental Policy Act. “The two replacement panels address underutilized disposal capacity and protect WIPP workers by avoiding the abandoned portions of the repository. There are no new circumstances nor information relevant to environmental concerns or potential environmental impacts that would warrant additional NEPA analysis,” the SA stated.

WIPP is seeking a permit modification to build the new panels at a virtual public hearing.  A total of 30,861 cubic meters of storing capacity for waste was lost as a result of the 2014 incident, according to DOE records. The accident also caused WIPP’s nuclear placement operations to take a three-year hiatus. The proposed two new panels would be used to replace the storage areas lost in the 2014 radiological release occurrence.

“WIPP is a key facility in the Department of Energy’s commitment to environmental cleanup of sites that supported production of nuclear weapons and government-sponsored nuclear research,” WIPP officials said in a statement. If the panels are approved, WIPP could continue to operate past the initial planned closure date of 2024 for an additional nine years. The added capacity could give them a new closure date of 2033, the SA stated, peaking at almost 700 shipments per year between 2027 and 2030.

In February 2021, in a civil complaint filed in state district court, New Mexico went after the federal government for failing to make progress on cleaning up contamination left behind by decades of bomb-making and nuclear research at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Concerns have been mounting over plans to resume production of components for the U.S. nuclear arsenal at the laboratory. The U.S. Energy Department’s 2021 priority plan lists its schedule for cleaning up tons of toxic waste left behind by decades of nuclear research and bomb-making at scientific installations and defense sites around the country.

New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney believes court supervision is needed to renegotiate the terms to protect the community and environment from this radioactive waste. “The department entered the 2016 consent order with high expectations, but almost five years later, our expectations are far from met,” he said in a statement.

The Energy Department’s list includes sending 30 shipments from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to WIPP in southern New Mexico. Environmental officials say the plan lacks substantive and appropriate targets for dealing with the nuclear waste. Concerns are that new waste generated by Los Alamos will need to be cleaned up when it ramps up production of nuclear warhead components and could further sideline decontamination efforts.

 It is estimated it would take at least 30 years of 30 shipments per year to remove existing waste that includes radioactive tools, clothing, gloves and other debris. “As the LANL mission expands and the facility takes on ever greater responsibilities for the DOE’s national security mission, enhanced attention to lab cleanup is imperative. Instead, the environmental management priority list places LANL on the back burner,” State Rep. Christine Chandler said.

There are approximately 400,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste in Los Alamos, with most buried in disposal areas around the laboratory. Some 3,500 cubic meters of that waste stored will eventually be shipped to WIPP. Pointing to past missed deadlines, watchdogs have said the Energy Department has no coherent plan or budget to remove the waste on a reasonable schedule.

State officials have tried to resolve the issue with DOE through a dispute resolution process that began in October 2020. No agreement was reached and negotiations ended in January. New Mexico is asking the court to issue a $333,000 civil penalty for DOE’s lack of compliance related to the existing consent order.

The five-day virtual New Mexico Environment Department public hearing begins via Zoom on Monday, May 17 at noon on WIPP’s Class 3 Permit Modification Request. The proposed WIPP expansion includes digging a new $197 million shaft to the west of the existing disposal area and mining tunnels to connect the shaft expansion. DOE, Nuclear Waste Partnership and the State Hazardous Waste Bureau support the new expansion. The upcoming hearing offers an opportunity for New Mexicans to comment. Numerous groups, including Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, are opposing the expansion.