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Plutonium waste too much for WIPP


For the Record: This story has been updated to reflect that a change in the amount of waste stored at WIPP would need a congressional amendment.

Southeastern New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant won’t have room for the 34 metric tons of excess plutonium the Department of Energy hopes to permanently dispose of there.

In fact, a report by the Government Accountability Office released this week says that even the current amounts of waste planned for storage at the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository won’t fit.

The report, “Proposed Dilute and Dispose Approach Highlights Need for More Work at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” recommends the DOE develop a plan to expand storage capacity at the facility.

“DOE does not have sufficient disposal space at WIPP to dispose of all defense TRU waste already planned for disposal, and future sources of waste could exceed WIPP’s statutory capacity,” the report reads. “…While DOE officials stated that they recognize expansion of WIPP’s disposal space may be necessary in the future, they have not analyzed or planned for expanding the facility because their focus has been on resuming waste emplacement operations at WIPP.”

“TRU” waste refers to transuranic waste, which is considered low level.

WIPP was closed for nearly three years after a February 2014 fire and unrelated radiological release.

A 2000 agreement between the United States and Russia stipulated that each nation would dispose of 34 metric tons of excess plutonium — enough to create 17,000 nuclear weapons.

While Russia suspended its participation in the agreement in October due to perceived threats from the U.S., the United States is continuing steps toward disposing of the waste.

One of the options being considered for the plutonium is a downblending process which renders the material inert. It would then be disposed of at WIPP.

That would be in addition to waste generated by DOE sites around country; those have around 71,000 cubic meters of waste waiting to be emplaced underground.

The regulatory limit of waste that can be stored at WIPP is 175,565 cubic meters, as designated in the 1992 Land Withdrawal Act.

That could be changed through congressional amendment, according to the GAO.

An option for getting around the storage limit would be to change the way waste entering WIPP is counted, which has been the source of debate for years.

As of April, around 91,000 cubic meters of waste have been disposed of at WIPP, using the current counting method: The volume of waste is calculated using the volume of the outermost containers in which it is placed, which are not packed to capacity.

Some barrels that have been disposed are completely empty, packaged along with waste-laden drums to balance out the loads.

“DOE should immediately redefine how to count the regulatory volume of WIPP, and stop counting air,” John Heaton, chairman of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force, said in an email.

The DOE estimates that if the counting method is modified, it would free up enough space for current waste and the excess plutonium.

But both of those options would require substantial planning, which the report says the DOE has not undertaken.

“…the effort needed for DOE to prepare the documentation and obtain regulatory approval for each of these issues is significant, and DOE has not yet begun these efforts,” the report states.

Heaton also said the DOE should pursue a regulatory increase in the amount of waste that can be stored at WIPP.

“WIPP is the only geologic repository in the USA,” Heaton said. “To not maximize WIPP’s capability would be a tragedy when there may never be another repository developed in the country.”

Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety program at the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center, said changes like those advocated by Heaton would be breaking the DOE’s promises to the people of New Mexico when it built WIPP, including limits on the facility’s size and capacity.

“There’s a conflict, in my view, between what the law is and what DOE wants to do,” he said.

He also said those attempts are misguided, in that WIPP was never intended to take all transuranic waste created by the DOE.

“Congress needs to start thinking pretty seriously about long-term nuclear waste beyond WIPP,” he said. “…Everybody’s known that multiple repositories would be necessary.”

Available developed storage space at WIPP is also a concern in the near term. The report estimates just 25,350 cubic meters of space are currently available.

Several areas had to be shut off due to contamination from the 2014 radiation leak that closed WIPP, and a lack of maintenance led to storage areas being deemed unsafe.

During an Aug. 8 public meeting in Albuquerque, DOE Carlsbad Field Office Manager Todd Shrader said Panel 7, where waste is now being emplaced, should be full near the beginning of Fiscal Year 2022.

Mining of a new panel that can hold a maximum of 19,400 cubic meters of waste, is expected to begin this fall. It is expected to be ready for use about six months before Panel 7 is full.

“One of the things we’re working very hard to avoid is a shipping discontinuity,” Shrader said.