WIPP Reopens After Three-Year Cleanup: Is Its Nuclear Waste Safe?

Three years after being closed down by a radioactive leak, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico is accepting nuclear waste.

Nearly three years after being closed down indefinitely due to a fire and a radioactive leak, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, has begun accepting nuclear waste deposits, even as watchdog groups caution that it may not be safe or efficient enough.

The process to re-certify and reopen the nation’s only underground repository for nuclear waste has been under way since mid-December, with several inspections by various agencies after cleanup from the 2014 incidents was completed. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) conducted its own review, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration conducted a separate inspection, and there was one final review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Then the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) held its last in a series of inspections and approved the plant to restart waste storage activities. The DOE then authorized its contractor, Los Alamos National Security, to resume the disposal of transuranic (more radioactive than uranium) waste.

"Our inspections last week were to ensure that the violations cited and the corrective actions identified in NMED’s 2014 Administrative Orders and Administrative Compliance Order have been fully addressed,” said New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Butch Tongate in a January 4 statement, the day that the facility accepted its first shipment. “Further, all conditions of WIPP’s current hazardous waste permit, under the U.S. Resource and Conservation Recovery Act which NMED enforces in New Mexico, must be met as well."

Critics and watchdogs such as Greg Mello of Los Alamos Study Group, an organization that studies nuclear disarmament and related issues in New Mexico, say officials are rushing to open up WIPP to meet deadlines. The DOE and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) need WIPP to take the transuranic waste, followed by other forms of nuclear waste. It’s similar to what’s happening with projects in Texas and New Mexico that are considering accepting high-level nuclear waste and recycling spent fuel rods.

Don Hancock, with the Southwest Research and Information Center, a watchdog group that focuses on WIPP, told the Santa Fe New Mexican on December 23 that despite DOE and NMED confidence in WIPP’s safety, the agencies’ reports cite serious issues. He pointed to a Mine Safety and Health Administration report that found conditions in the underground storage area have deteriorated significantly since the 2014 incident, with problems such as roof collapses.

“Emergencies are addressed immediately, while lower priorities languish until they become emergencies,” the report said, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican. “Without changing this practice, as the risk level increases, so does the likelihood of unanticipated events.”

The long-term cost of the accident at WIPP could top $2 billion, according to theLos Angeles Times, more than what it cost to clean up Three Mile Island in 1979.

For the moment, shipments of waste to WIPP from national laboratories and defense sites around the country remain on hold. These facilities have had to store their waste on site or pay for off-site rentals at approved temporary storage facilities. DOE had been transporting waste from the Idaho National Laboratory, Savannah River Site, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Hanford Site and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to WIPP. The waste remaining at these sites includes some of the more challenging material to be disposed of.

LANL deservedly took most of the criticism for the WIPP leak, but Los Alamos National Security was the entity in charge. In a surprise change, the $2.2 billion contract to run LANL will be put out to bid by the DOE, meaning that current contractors of LANS, whose biggest partners are Bechtel Corp and the University of California, would have to reapply. The current contract runs out on September 30.