Construction of a new utility shaft at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant transuranic waste repository may be put on hold after the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) denied a request by the Department of Energy and its contractor to extend state authorization of the project. The shaft is part of WIPP’s Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System, a $300-million project intended to allow simultaneous mining and waste emplacement activities in the geologic repository by increasing ventilation to the underground.
The NMED in April 2020 approved a request by the DOE and WIPP operator Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) for temporary authorization to begin construction of the utility shaft while the state reviews a modification to WIPP’s permit allowing the addition to the repository. That authorization expired on October 24, and the DOE and NWP asked for an extension of the authorization for an additional 180 days while the permit modification process continues.
Temporary authorization expires: During an inspection of WIPP on September 29, the NMED asked the DOE and NWP for the construction schedule and plans for halting operations after the temporary authorization expires. The NMED said that it was provided with different contingency plan scenarios but that the October 24 expiration was not included as a “key date” in WIPP’s schedule. In addition, the NMED said that the DOE and NWP did not inform it of its contingency plans until November 5, after the temporary authorization had expired.
In a November 18 letter to the DOE and NWP denying the extension request, the NMED wrote, “The lack of a readily available contingency plan during the inspection, the exclusion of the Temporary Authorization expiration in the short-term schedule, along with the notification of implementing the contingency plan 10 days after the expiration of the Temporary Authorization, gives NMED significant concern that the permittees are not appropriately planning the execution of shaft construction activities in accordance with a Temporary Authorization or approved Permit Modification in place.”
COVID concerns: In its decision to deny the authorization extension, the NMED also cited the number of cases of COVID-19 reported at WIPP. According to a November 25 announcement by WIPP, 13 employees tested positive for COVID-19 during the week of November 18–23. Through November 17, WIPP had recorded 137 positive COVID-19 cases, with 67 of the individuals having recovered in accordance with WIPP protocols.
“Given the current high incidence rate at the WIPP facility, including a reported death of an employee, the circumstances of which are currently unknown, it is clear that the permittees are unable to successfully mitigate COVID-19 risk to protect human health while conducting the activities under the scope of this request,” the NMED letter to the DOE and NWP states.
According to the NMED, its denial of the extension does not constitute a final agency action on the pending permit modification request, nor does it prejudice or presuppose the outcome of the permit review.