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New Mexicans Oppose WIPP Expansion

More than 700 individuals and citizen organizations representing more than 10,000 individuals have strongly opposed the Department of Energy (DOE) plans to expand the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). WIPP, the world's first deep underground repository for nuclear waste, received its first shipment of plutonium-contaminated waste on March 26, 1999. Public opposition will grow as more people are aware of DOE's plans to expand WIPP, its continuing use of unsafe underground rooms, and how seriously it is behind its own shipping schedule.

The latest outpouring of opposition was in response to DOE's request to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to change its operating permit in order to open waste drums at WIPP to characterize or determine what is in the 55-gallon drums and to make WIPP a long-term surface storage site. For more than 20 years, DOE has stated that that it would not open drums at WIPP, but rather that the characterization would be done at sites where the waste is stored before it could be shipped. In its sworn testimony at the public hearing for the permit, DOE's witness stated:

We never open waste containers that are received from an offsite generator.... By not opening the waste, we can eliminate the possibility of spreading contamination throughout our facility. So not opening the container, keeping the containers sealed, is a major—a major strategy in our protection of human health and the environment.

Testimony of Robert F. Kehrman, February 22, 1999.

Such characterization is necessary to determine that items prohibited from disposal at WIPP—explosives, ignitible, corrosive, reactive materials, or large amounts of liquids, among others-are not shipped to the facility. If approved, DOE's request would allow prohibited items to be shipped to WIPP, where the drums would be opened, dramatically increasing accidents and releases of radioactive and toxic wastes at WIPP.

DOE also asked to expand the storage area of the Waste Handling Building by more than 33 percent and to eliminate the 60-days limit for surface storage. Thus, waste prohibited from disposal at WIPP would be stored on the surface indefinitely.

In addition, DOE's request would eliminate the permit's audit and surveillance program wherein NMED checks, including by visiting the sites, that the characterization requirements are complied with at each site, before wastes are shipped. Thus, sites could use only their written records, which have often proved to be highly inaccurate, as the basis to ship waste to WIPP, and the drums of wastes would not be opened until they arrived at WIPP.

Comments opposing DOE's request also came from the New Mexico Attorney General's Office, the Environmental Evaluation Group, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Only five commentors, all from Carlsbad, supported the DOE request.

On September 29, DOE withdrew its request, but stated that it would resubmit a similar plan in early October. On October 19, before it had considered the public comments, NMED sent a 26-page letter with mostly critical comments on the DOE request. DOE pledges to submit the request in January.


PCBs. On August 8, DOE asked EPA to allow Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in any amounts to be disposed at WIPP. As of July 2, 1979, the manufacture and import of PCBs in the U.S. was prohibited under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Congress banned PCBs because they are long-lived, highly toxic, and cancer causing. EPA regulates storage and disposal of PCBs under TSCA, and the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act of 1992 requires that WIPP comply with TSCA and other federal and state environmental laws.

The DOE request is an apparent attempt to fundamentally expand WIPP and to do so without providing for any formal public notice or comment on the request. Whether EPA will require a detailed DOE application and provide for any kind of public comment is unknown.

Remote-Handled Waste. DOE has always planned to bring remote-handled (RH) transuranic waste to WIPP. RH waste has similar radioactivity to high-level waste, and RH waste cannot be handled by people without substantial shielding to prevent deadly radiation exposure. In the operating permit, RH waste was prohibited, primarily because DOE has not done testing to determine the exact nature and characteristics of the waste. Although such characterization has still not been done, DOE now wants to bring RH wastes to WIPP based solely on written records (acceptable knowledge), which have proven to be highly inaccurate. On October 17, it held a meeting to discuss the RH waste program with NMED and regulators from Washington and Tennessee (the two states with the largest quantities of RH waste). The public was excluded from the meeting. Rather than characterizing its RH waste, as required by federal and state regulations and the WIPP Permit, DOE will be asking that the regulations and permit be changed. SRIC and others will vigorously oppose such DOE requests.

Panel 1. Panel 1 consists of the first seven football-field size underground disposal rooms mined at WIPP during 1986 and 1988, at a time that DOE expected to open WIPP by 1989. Independent geologists have long opposed using Panel 1 for waste disposal because of the increasing dangers of large-scale ceiling collapses, as occurred in two other rooms at WIPP that were not intended for waste disposal. DOE has spent millions of dollars to try to maintain Panel 1 for waste disposal.

The operating permit did prohibit disposal of mixed waste in Panel 1, because DOE broke a long-standing commitment and placed waste there before the permit was issued. But in April DOE and NMED secretly changed the prohibition to allow mixed waste disposal in Panel 1. SRIC and other citizens have strongly objected to the change in the permit and it being done with no public notice, since the prohibition was the result of extensive testimony and public comment during the WIPP permit process. SRIC has sued in the New Mexico Court of Appeals to overturn the permit change.

DOE now has mined Panel 2 and certified it as ready to use on September 14. On October 26, NMED agreed that Panel 2 was constructed in compliance with the WIPP permit.

Despite having spent millions of dollars to mine Panel 2, including accelerating the construction, DOE is not using those rooms. Instead, it is developing a plan to use some rooms in Panel 1 for at least two more years. DOE says it may wait until remote-handled waste comes to WIPP (which is likely at least three years away) before it uses Panel 2 for waste disposal.

Although DOE knows that some rooms in Panel 1 are too dangerous to use, abandoning Panel 1 would reduce WIPP's capacity by about 10 percent and will mean that millions of dollars have been wasted to maintain it.

Shipments to WIPP. DOE is seriously behind schedule in shipping wastes to WIPP. Although Congress appropriated more than $365 million for the past two years with the DOE promise to ship 150 truckloads to WIPP, only 90 shipments actually arrived. Because the majority of trucks were not full, the amount of waste received was equivalent to only 68 truckloads.

Information Resources

Department of Energy
PO Box 3090, Carlsbad, NM 88221
1-800-336-9477; www.wipp.ws

New Mexico Environment Department
1190 St. Francis Dr., Santa Fe, NM 87502-0110
505/827-2855; www.nmenv.state.nm.us/wipp

Citizen for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping
144 Harvard SE, Albuquerque, NM 87106

Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety
107 Cienega, Santa Fe, NM 87501
505/986-1973; www.nuclearactive.org

Nuclear Watch of New Mexico
551Cordova Rd. #135, Santa Fe, NM 87501
505/989-7342; www.nukewatch.org

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"In Alice in Wonderland, poor Alice was plagued by the problem of regulating her own size. One side of the caterpillar's mushroom made her grow, and the other made her shrink, and Alice was hard put to consume the right stimulus at the right rate to achieve the right size. If she erred on one side, she would swoop into hugeness; if on the other, she would instantly dwindle. Twentieth-century efforts at the management of nature bring Alice's dilemma to mind. The goal is to get humanity's role in nature back to the right size, neither too big or too small, neither too powerful nor too powerless. Like Alice, the manager finds it difficult to regulate the rate of change; a seemingly subtle move will have enormous repercussions; causing humans abruptly to become huge again; and a seemingly forceful and direct move will meet implacable resistance from nature, causing them to appear as creatures of great self-importance and little actual stature. Swinging from huge to tiny, dominant to dominated, humanity's place in nature changes from day to day, hour to hour."
--Patricia Nelson Limerick
The Legacy of Conquest
W.W. Norton & Company
1987, New York, New York

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