Public meeting for input on non-defense waste storage at WIPP set for Monday

Carlsbad Current-Argus – Public meeting for input on non-defense waste storage at WIPP set for Monday

ublic meeting for input on non-defense waste storage at WIPP set for Monday
By Kyle Marksteiner
Article Launched: 08/07/2007 09:21:28 PM MDT

What: Greater Than Class C public scoping meeting

Where: Pecos River Village Conference Center

When: 6-9 p.m. Monday, Aug. 13

CARLSBAD — The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad is being considered as one possible location for depositing 5,600 cubic meters of radioactive waste.

A meeting seeking public input on the possibility will take place from 6-9 p.m. Monday at the Pecos River Village Conference Center in Carlsbad. Hearings around the nation will be used to form a draft environmental impact statement for possible action by Congress.

The Department of Energy is seeking to dispose of 2,600 cubic meters of non-defense waste from decommissioned nuclear power plants, radioactive sealed sources no longer being used in such activities as food irradiation and medical procedures, and waste from industry research and development. An additional 3,000 cubic meters is waste that doesn’t have a disposal path. The 2,600 cubic meters is “Greater Than Class C” waste that has commercial origins, while the 3,000 cubic meters has similar contents but unspecified origins.

It’s a relatively small amount of waste. For comparison, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is authorized for 175,000 cubic meters
of defense-related transuranic waste.

The DOE, following a request from Congress to find something to do with the waste, is currently evaluating a variety of potential disposal methods including WIPP and the proposed Yucca Mountain Repository. The federal agency is also considering near-surface disposal or borehole disposal near a variety of locations, including WIPP. It’s possible, therefore, that the waste could be brought to Eddy County and deposited in boreholes or near surface disposal facilities outside of the boundaries of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

Regulations require that the waste be disposed of in a geologic repository unless the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves an alternate proposal for disposal at a licensed facility.

The WIPP site itself is currently not authorized, through legislation or regulation, for this type of waste. If WIPP were to become authorized, however, the increase in waste would not exceed the volume of what is currently allowed at WIPP.

“From the standpoint of volume, it’s a drop in the bucket,” said Dave Moody, manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office.

The waste would likely not bring additional jobs to WIPP, officials have said.

The first step will be to see what people in the prospective disposal areas think hence the public meetings.

“The purpose is to get public input on the whole process,” Moody said. “The inclusion (of the waste) at WIPP and the inclusion at a site near WIPP, both of those could impact this population.”

Moody stressed that the DOE doesn’t “pick favorites” during the evaluation process. For WIPP or a nearby location to be selected, “the Department (of Energy) would have to approach Congress and demonstrate that they followed the (National Environmental Policy Act) process and the outcome presented a compelling case for WIPP as the choice for the disposal of the material,” Moody said, noting that the DOE would then recommend a path forward to Congress.

The two possibilities of disposing of the waste near Carlsbad each have their own complexities. Bringing the waste to WIPP would benefit from the infrastructure already present, but would require fairly significant changes to the Land Withdrawal Act, a Congressional act that created very specific definitions of what can and cannot be disposed of at WIPP.

Congressional support for bringing the waste to WIPP may be an uphill battle. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., recently told the Albuquerque Journal that he doesn’t support opening up previous agreements to broaden the types of waste that can be deposited at WIPP.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., issued a statement saying he is “satisfied with WIPP’s mission as authorized to support the national security mission.” A spokesman clarified by noting Domenici doesn’t think changing the Land Withdrawal Act is presently the best course of action.

If Congress ultimately decides to dispose of the waste in boreholes near, but not at, WIPP, there won’t have to be major changes made to the Land Withdrawal Act. Some new infrastructure might be needed, but the process could still be quickened for the DOE by nearby resources already in place.

“If that were the outcome of the NEPA process, it would not be unreasonable to expect the Carlsbad Field Office to manage that process,” Moody said.

Not applying to the Land Withdrawal Act by disposing the waste outside of WIPP, but still in Eddy County, wouldn’t exactly simplify the process. There would be a new permitting process for the new land, and it would still take extensive negotiations with the state for approval. Negotiations would have to take place with the BLM, or whatever agency owns the current land.

Should Congress ultimately decide that WIPP or its area is the best option, the DOE would still have to work out various transportation and characterization issues with state and federal environmental regulators. It’s hard to say, Moody said, if the waste would be dealt with in a similar manner as current waste received at WIPP.

“It would not be too far fetched to believe that the same kind of characterization requirements would be present for anything put into the repository,” he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency would require a performance assessment to bring waste to the site, Moody said, “But it would easily be bounded by our current performance assessment.”

Moody again noted that the DOE isn’t taking sides during the scoping process.

“You don’t presuppose the outcome of the process,” he said. “Our local city officials who are very interested in WIPP mission expansion have been very vocally in favor of these kinds of expansions. Clearly there is nothing wrong with the populous being in favor of an option.”

DOE employees can speak their opinions as private citizens, he noted.

Recently, some community leaders have mentioned hoping to ultimately greatly increase the scope of WIPP to include other types of waste than what are currently allowed.

The official DOE perspective, Moody said, is that the department is asked by Congress from time to time to evaluate possible future scenarios.

“We certainly don’t presuppose the outcome of the NEPA action,” he said. “Have there been any plans made for how we could change the Land Withdrawal Act? No. Do we evaluate what-if scenarios? You bet.”

Comments on the scope of the Greater Than Class C environmental impact statement can also be submitted to: James. L. Joyce, GTCC EIS Document Manager, Office of Regulatory Compliance (EM-10), U.S. Department of Energy, 1000 Independence Avenue, SW., Washington, DC 20585-0119, or via fax: 301-903-4303, e-mail at, or via the Web site at Please mark envelopes and e-mails as “GTCC EIS Comments”

Terms that may come up at Monday’s meeting

DOE: Department of Energy. The U.S. agency responsible for energy policy and nuclear safety.

GTCC LLW: Greater Than Class C, Low-Level Radioactive Waste. 2,600 cubic meters of non-defense waste from decommissioned plants, radioactive sealed sources no longer being used in such activities as food irradiation and medical procedures, and waste from industry research and development. DOE GTCC-like waste consists of 3,000 cubic meters of waste with similar contents but unspecified origins.

WIPP: Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. An underground repository licensed to dispose of transuranic radioactive waste that is left from the research and production of nuclear weapons. Waste is placed in rooms 2,150 feet underground.

LWA: Land Withdrawal Act. This 1992 Act established many of the federal regulations related to WIPP currently in place today.

NMED: New Mexico Environment Department. A state agency tasked with protecting human health and safeguarding the environment. The NMED regulates hazardous materials at WIPP.

EPA: Environmental Protection Agency. A federal agency tasked with protecting human health and safeguarding the environment. The EPA regulates radioactive materials at WIPP.

NEPA: National Environmental Policy Act. The law was signed in 1970. It establishes specific procedures, including requiring an environmental impact statement to be written for all major federal actions which may have a significant impact on the environment. The purpose of NEPA is to promote informed decision-making by federal agencies by making “detailed information concerning significant environmental impacts” available to both agency leaders and the public.

EIS: Environmental Impact Statement. A part of the NEPA process evaluates the impacts of the proposed alternatives on the environment. It is used to assist in suggesting future courses of action.

NOI: Notice of Intent. Formally starts the EIS process.

For specific information about what kinds of waste is allowed at WIPP, visit

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