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WIPP waste rules face more scrutiny

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The state’s environment department has determined the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s request to revise how the volume of radioactive waste it houses is determined should go through a more stringent process than it initially submitted.

The underground repository for nuclear waste near Carlsbad submitted a request to modify its permit in January for “Clarification of TRU (transuranic) Mixed Waste Disposal Volume Reporting.”

Drums of waste are arranged inside larger containers called overpacks before they are placed underground.

The volume of those overpacks is what is counted toward WIPP’s total volume, limited to 6.2 million cubic feet by the federal Land Withdrawal Act.

WIPP officials say they believe the volume of the inner containers be counted instead.

The new standards would mean the facility is one-third full; by current measure, it’s considered half full.

WIPP originally submitted a Class 2 modification to the permit to NMED.

But in a letter to the facility’s leaders sent earlier this month, NMED Secretary Butch Tongate said the request must go through a Class 3 permit modification process used for major changes to permits.

“… I have determined that it is appropriate for NMED to process the Modification as a Class 3 modification … as there is significant public concern and the complex nature of the proposed change requires the more extensive procedures of a Class 3 modification,” Tongate wrote in a June 1 letter.

WIPP spokesman Bill Taylor wrote in an email that the Department of Energy and WIPP operating and managing contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership “will continue to work with the State of New Mexico on the required processes for a Class 3 Permit Modification Request.”

That will mean additional opportunities for public comment, said Don Hancock, the Southwest Research and Information Center’s Nuclear Waste Safety program director.

Opponents and those skeptical of the proposed changes, including the Southwest Research and Information Center, had urged the NMED take a closer look at the modification request.

Hancock argues that WIPP should be focused on safely completing its original mission.

“They shouldn’t be trying to expand their mission,” Hancock said.