Updated Status of WIPP Repository (1-3-01)

Most Recent Action
According to EENews, Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) successfully attached an amendment to the Military Construction appropriations bill (H.R. 4425) that released DOE's principal Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) contractor, Westinghouse, from a $100 million bonding requirement.  The New Mexico Environment Department's bonding requirement was intended to guarantee that the WIPP facility will be cleaned up upon its closure. The amendment was designed to free up a $20 million annual DOE payment to the state for road construction and nuclear safety training -- a payment that DOE was withholding in anticipation of paying for the bond.  According to Domenici, the bond was unnecessary because "the full faith and credit of the federal government stands behind the eventual closure of WIPP." (6/29/00; revised 1/3/01)

Current Congress
Nearly a year after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certified the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, the first shipment of transuranic radioactive waste from the nation's nuclear weapons complex arrived at the site in March 1999. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced: "This is a truly historic moment for the Department of Energy and the nation. This shipment to WIPP represents the beginning of fulfilling the long-overdue promise to all Americans to safely clean up the nation's Cold War legacy of nuclear waste and protect the generations to come."

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 and a decade after it was originally scheduled to begin receiving waste -- when it issued certification that WIPP meets standards to protect public health and the environment from the effects of radiation exposure and contamination. The 10-month delay following the EPA action was due to concerns raised by New Mexico that the waste was not yet ready to ship because it may contain non-radioactive contaminants that required separate certifications.

The underground facility will contain 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 it.

A history of WIPP legislation and background information is available below. Addition information is available from the Department of Energy, U.S. 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  1996 report by the National Research Council titled The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant:  A Potential Solution for the Disposal of Transuranic Waste is available on the web through the National Academies of Science.

Background: Update on WIPP Land Withdrawal Act Amendments
Legislation on the low-level nuclear waste repository known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President Clinton in late September 1996. The legislation was intended to expedite the opening of the facility. Originally introduced by Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) as a stand-alone bill (S. 1402), the legislation passed as an amendment, introduced by Idaho Republican Senators Craig and Dirk Kempthorne, tacked on to the much larger defense authorization bill (S.1745). As passed, the new language revises the 1992 WIPP Land Withdrawal Act to exempt transuranic wastes from some land disposal regulations promulgated under the Solid Waste Disposal Act, removes outdated retrievability requirements, and provides a firm target date in 1997 for opening the facility. Before passage, the language in S. 1402 underwent two changes. First, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may request information from the Energy Department (DOE) at any time during the licensing process, effectively subjecting WIPP to EPA safety requirements, and 30-day period for public and congressional review of the facility after EPA's opening authorization is required. Second, wastes deposited at the facility are restricted to defense nuclear wastes. The latter provision removed language in the Craig bill that would have expanded the types of wastes that could be stored at WIPP. The changes were supported by the Administration and received the backing of New Mexico Senators Pete Domenici (R) and Jeff Bingaman(D).

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 David Applegate, AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Interns Audrey Slesinger and Rene Cortez, and Kasey Shewey White.

Last updated January 3, 2001.

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