WIPP volume hearing underway in Carlsbad - Albuquerque Journal

WIPP volume hearing underway in Carlsbad

CARLSBAD – A hearing on the U.S. Department of Energy’s request to the state to change how the volume of nuclear waste stored underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is calculated is underway.

Representatives of the DOE and WIPP’s managing and operating contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC, New Mexico Environment Department and those opposed to the proposed changes gave opening statements and witnesses were called to testify Tuesday morning at Carlsbad’s New Mexico State University campus.

“The matter before you I like to refer to as the tale of the two volumes,” said DOE attorney Michael Woodward. “It’s a single-issue permit modification request and it really should be a very straightforward matter.”

The changes would mean waste volume would be calculated using the innermost containers, generally 55-gallon drums. Currently, the volume of overpack containers is included.

WIPP officials say by current standards, the underground is half full. If the permit modification request is approved, it will only be considered one-third full.

The New Mexico Environment Department, which will ultimately decide to approve or deny the Permit Modification Request, expressed support for most of the proposed changes in its brief opening statement.

However, NMED counsel Jennifer Hower said the department is requesting language specifying the allowable volume designated under the federal Land Withdrawal Act of 6.2 million cubic feet be kept in the permit, which the DOE and NWP have proposed removing.

After opening statements, former NWP employee and current consultant Bob Kehrman took the witness stand.

Lindsay Lovejoy Jr., an attorney for the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center, spent much of his time cross-examining Kehrman on the 20 years of precedent dictating how waste volume has been counted.

Lovejoy also probed Kehrman for possible ulterior motives for the change.

“It just seems to me that there’s some waste you want to put in the WIPP that you haven’t disclosed. Is that true?” Lovejoy asked.

Kehrman declined to answer, but emphasized the current permit modification does not include requests for other waste streams or types of waste.

Some expressed confusion as to why the change is being pitched as a clarification of the existing volume language.

“I don’t agree that it’s a clarification. It’s a redefinition,” said Norbert Rempe, a retired WIPP geologist who attended Tuesday’s proceedings. “I’m not opposed to changing (how volume is calculated) but I’m somewhat critical of the way it’s being done. I think it should be done in a more honest fashion in describing it as what it really is: either for the first time defining or redefining how they calculate the volume.”

Members of the Carlsbad community, including Mayor Dale Janway and city councilors, spoke out in support of the modification request.

“In my perception, this request is not an attempt to increase capacity,” said Russell Hardy, a Carlsbad resident and director of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center that provides civilian oversight of WIPP. “This permit request is simply an attempt to more efficiently use the resources we have with limited space available to continue to remove defense-related … waste from the DOE complex.”

The hearing continues today.

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