New Mexico tightens restrictions on WIPP permit renewal

December 14, 2022, 7:00AMRadwaste Solutions
A radiological control technician checks radiation readings on waste containers at WIPP. (Photo: WIPP)

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) is adding several conditions to the operating permit for the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M. The permit changes, which would prioritize the disposal of transuranic (TRU) waste generated in the state and limit the repository’s capacity, are contained in a fact sheet the NMED.

The fact sheet was released on December 8 ahead of a draft WIPP hazardous waste operating permit, which is being issued by the NMED on December 20 for a 60-day comment period ending on February 18. Information on the draft operating permit is to be posted on the NMED website.

“The New Mexico Environment Department is taking a strong stance to protect the health, environment, and interests of New Mexicans,” said New Mexico environment secretary James Kenney. “The proposed permit changes clearly prioritize DOE’s clean-up of legacy contamination in our state while holding the permittees accountable.”

Background: The DOE and WIPP operating contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership applied to the NMED to renew the WIPP hazardous waste permit in March 2020. The current permit, which expired on December 30, 2020, has been extended by the state until a new operating permit is issued. WIPP first received a hazardous waste facility permit from the state in 1999 to dispose of TRU waste 2,150 feet below ground in the geologic repository.

The conditions: The NMED is proposing several new conditions in the draft permit, including the following:

  1. Prioritizing the disposal of legacy DOE wastes at WIPP that are generated from New Mexico clean-up activities.
  2. Tying WIPP’s closure to the end of the permit term (i.e., 10 years after the new permit is issued) unless the DOE can provide an accurate inventory of all remaining wastes awaiting clean-up and emplacement in WIPP.
  3. Revoking the DOE’s state operating permit should Congress change the federal Land Withdrawal Act to allow for increased waste emplacement at WIPP.
  4. Suspending any and all waste shipments to WIPP if there are allegations or evidence of a threat to human health or the environment.
  5. Requiring the DOE to submit a new annual report detailing steps toward siting another geologic repository in a state other than New Mexico.
  6. Conducting surveillance of both oil and gas production wells and saltwater disposal wells operating around the perimeter of the facility.
  7. Enhancing the public participation process as a permit condition.

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