It appears that a few more months will pass before the Department of Energy ships any radioactive waste to the Waste Isolation Power Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The delay -- which moves the ship date back to early August at best -- is due to concerns by New Mexico that the waste is not yet ready to ship because it may contain non-radioactive contaminants.
The Environmental Protection Agency gave WIPP the green light to start receiving waste on May 13, 1998 -- more than two decades after it was initially proposed -- when it issued certification that WIPP meets standards to protect public health and the environment from the effects of radiation exposure and contamination. The underground facility will contain low-level but long-lived nuclear waste produced by the nation's nuclear weapons production complex. The waste consists predominantly of clothing and equipment that has been contaminated by plutonium and similar radioactive elements known as transuranics (TRU). Housed in thick salt beds 2,150 feet below the surface, the waste will eventually be trapped as the salt walls will collapse and encapsulate the waste.
A history of WIPP legislation and background information is available below. Addition information is available from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Evaluation Group websites. EEG is jointly funded by DOE and the State of New Mexico to conduct an independent technical evaluation of WIPP.
A very similar bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Joe Skeen (R-NM) and debate centered on a controversial provision that would transfer certification responsibility from EPA to DOE. The provision was aimed at reducing the amount of time and paper work required to expedite the opening of WIPP, but the Administration strongly opposed the provision, pointing out that DOE self regulation over the past several decades was responsible, in great part, for the many current contamination and waste problems . The Administration argued that the public's trust was at risk if an outside regulating agency does not monitor activities at WIPP. In March, the House Commerce Committee removed the provision when it marked up the bill.
Before 1970, transuranic waste was handled the same way as other low-level radioactive waste and was buried in shallow trenches. Because the radioactive decay of plutonium in TRU waste takes thousands of years, however, DOE concluded that a special deep repository was necessary. Since 1970, more than 60,000 cubic meters of TRU waste have been packed in metal drums or corrugated metal boxes and covered with a removable layer of soil, to allow retrieval upon completion of a permanent repository. Currently, waste is stored at 10 DOE laboratory facilities around the country, with the largest amount stored at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.
The WIPP project was authorized by Congress in 1980 (P.L. 96-164) to address the problem of long-term disposal of defense-related TRU waste. The New Mexico site was chosen after earlier efforts to site a repository in an abandoned salt mine near Lyons, Kansas failed. The law excluded the WIPP repository from licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and required DOE to reach a "consultation and cooperation" agreement with the state of New Mexico in developing the facility. Excavation of the WIPP tunnels and chambers began in 1981, and DOE declared the facility ready for the start of underground waste tests in 1991. However, shipments were halted by legal challenges and DOE's lack of jurisdiction over the site, which was controlled by the Department of the Interior. The 1992 WIPP Land Withdrawal Act largely settled those issues and established procedures for opening the repository, including the establishment of EPA as the agency with regulatory authority over site suitability.
Sources: The Library of Congress and the EESI Bulletin
Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.
Contributed by Rene Cortez, David Applegate and Kasey Shewey, AGI Government
Last updated June 23, 1998; Technical addition May 22, 1999
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