When the U.S. Department of Energy submitted a request early this year to the state to change the way the volume of waste is calculated underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, many organizations immediately expressed adamant opposition.
Many of those groups now worry the state is fast-tracking the process to approve the permit modification request that ultimately would increase the volume of waste allowed at the facility.
Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program with the Southwest Research and Information Center, said Wednesday that in a meeting Monday with the New Mexico Environment Department and WIPP officials, the state said it plans to begin negotiations between stakeholders, including Hancock’s group, this coming Monday.
That gives stakeholders four days after public comments on the permit modification request were due Thursday to read and analyze what Hancock called “hundreds of pages of comments related to thousands of pages of documents.”
Comparatively, there were three months between the close of public comment and beginning of negotiations after another recent Class 3 modification request to close the south end of WIPP due to infrastructure concerns. The class number refers to the complexity and level of public concern over the proposed changes.
That request was approved.
Regulations stipulate that negotiations must occur but do not give a specific time frame between the end of public comment and the start of negotiations.
Hancock said the negotiations process is highly valuable and can result in the elimination of the need for a public hearing if agreements are reached, saving time, effort and money, as was the case in the south-end closure request.
NMED spokeswoman Katy Diffendorfer said the department is and will continue to follow regulatory processes regarding the modification request and denied Hancock’s claims of “fast-tracking.”
Hancock and other groups opposing the request also wrote an August letter to NMED Secretary Butch Tongate, requesting the public comment period be extended from the minimum requirement of 45 days to 90 days.
Tongate denied that request.
“Once again, it’s disappointing to see the administration turn a blind eye to concerns and reasonable requests for more time for due diligence,” said state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, chairman of the Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Committee. “Given the significant ramifications of increasing the hazardous waste load at the facility, it deserves maximal public involvement and attention.”
Diffendorfer said according to state regulations, if a public hearing is requested, the public comment period will be extended.
Hancock also pointed out NMED’s decision in June to upgrade the request from Class 2, as originally proposed by WIPP, to Class 3 due to “significant public concern and the complex nature of the proposed change.”
“What I want to know is why the rush?” Hancock said.
The 1992 federal Land Withdrawal Act that authorized WIPP stipulated that a maximum of 6.2 million cubic feet of transuranic waste may be stored underground there.
Currently, and historically, waste is calculated using the outermost containers, which may have smaller containers of waste within them.
Thus, the DOE argues, a lot of the volume being counted toward the limit is just air.
The underground repository is already more than half full by that count.
Should the request to change the method be approved by the state, volume instead would be calculated using the innermost containers. Using that method, the underground would be one-third full.
That is fine with some in the nuclear community, including the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Edwin Lyman, a senior global security scientist with UCS, said the increased volume capability would allow WIPP the room to accept the nation’s 50-ton plutonium stockpile currently sitting above ground at DOE sites across the country.
“It does make sense to dispose of this material in an underground repository in an expedited fashion,” Lyman said, though he recognized that does mean an increased burden for the state. “It’s a great contribution the state of New Mexico could make toward reducing the nuclear threat.”