The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has given preliminary approval to operation of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) as an underground repository for plutonium-contaminated material produced by the Department of Energy's (DOE) nuclear weapons production complex. WIPP is located east of Carlsbad, New Mexico in thick salt beds 2,150 feet below the surface. EPA will issue a final decision next spring following four months of public comment. The repository could begin accepting waste as early as May of 1998, although lawsuits seeking an injunction are likely hurdles that remain.
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 paperwork 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.
Originally contributed by Rene Cortez, AGI Government Affairs; revised by David Applegate
Sources: The Library of Congress and the EESI Bulletin
Last updated November 8, 1997 (bulk last updated 11-6-96)