Ever since the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant opened in 1999, there has been talk about expanding it beyond its agreed-upon storage capacity and altering the types of waste that can be stored in its vast salt caverns 2,150 feet underground. A key driver of those discussions, as the Journal has pointed out repeatedly over the years, is because there has been no alternative to WIPP since 2009, when then-Sen. Harry Reid, D- Nevada, and the Obama administration put the skids on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
In the interim such waste has continued to be created, but new storage sites have not.
Now there’s a new twist on WIPP and its future. A new report by the Government Accountability Office says WIPP – the federal government’s only underground nuclear waste repository – can’t accommodate the amount of waste already planned for storage there, let alone the 34 metric tons of excess plutonium the Department of Energy hopes to permanently dispose of there.
The regulatory limit of waste that can be stored at WIPP is 175,565 cubic meters and, as of April, it holds about 91,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste – plutonium-contaminated trash from the nation’s defense complex. That includes contaminated clothing, tools, debris and residues – waste that is highly radioactive and can take thousands of years to decay to safe radiation levels.
The new GAO report estimates there’s just 25,350 cubic meters of space currently available at the WIPP, which was closed for nearly three years following a 2014 radiation leak from an improperly packed drum of waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and an unrelated truck fire. Mining of a new panel that can hold a maximum of 19,400 cubic meters of waste is expected to begin this fall.
But the report’s bottom line is that – without expansion beyond its statutory limit – WIPP will be filled up long before a new repository can be built.
It’s not surprising that WIPP supporters are all for expanding the New Mexico site and are even talking about redefining “volume” so more waste can be packed into the underground facility. There’s even talk of “down-blending” higher-level nuclear waste to qualify for burial at the WIPP. Such moves are uniformly supported by Carlsbad civic leaders, who understand the level of nuclear expertise in their workforce as well as they understand the importance of a constant flow of government dollars to their communities and political futures.
And it’s reasonable to expand WIPP, providing the state and the federal government can agree on what goes in and how much the site can hold – safely. But WIPP is not a permanent solution for all the nation’s nuclear waste because there are still 70,000 metric tons being stored throughout the U.S., above ground and adjacent to rivers or on top of water tables, with more being created.
With Obama out of office and Reid retired, there’s a golden opportunity to get Yucca Mountain back on track, and Congress should do so – though the intractably partisan House and Senate seem incapable of accomplishing much of anything these days.
Yucca Mountain was/is supposed to be a deep geological repository storage facility for spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste. At present, it’s an incomplete, unused, $15 billion-dollar tunnel beneath the Nevada desert.
New Mexico has done, and will continue doing, its part to safely dispose of the nation’s nuclear waste. Nevada, which has also benefitted from the nation’s nuclear programs as well as $15 billion-plus in nuclear investment, should do the same.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.