ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Crews working at the U.S. government’s underground nuclear waste repository in New Mexico are starting a new phase of a contentious project to dig a utility shaft that officials say will increase ventilation at the site where workers entomb the radioactive remnants of decades of bomb-making.
Officials at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant said this week that the $75 million project is a top priority and that work will be done round the clock five days a week, with an additional shift on Saturdays. The shaft will eventually span more than four-tenths of a mile and connect to an underground system of passageways.
After reaching a depth of about 60 feet (18 meters), workers now will be drilling small holes and using explosive charges to clear more rock.
Adequate ventilation at the repository has been a big issue since 2014, when a radiation release forced a temporary closure and contamination limited air flow underground where workers dispose of nuclear waste. That prompted the need for a new ventilation system so full-scale operations could someday resume.
The repository is at the center of a multibillion-dollar effort to clean up waste from decades of U.S. nuclear research and bomb-making. Over more than 20 years, tons of waste have been stashed deep in the salt caverns at the southern New Mexico site.
Watchdog groups are raising red flags, saying the work is being done before state environmental officials finish a process allowing the public weigh in and before they have issued a final permit. The New Mexico Environment Department in April granted federal officials temporary approval to start the work as part of a larger request to dig the shaft and passageways.
The Southwest Research and Information Center is among those opposing the project. The group filed legal challenges, saying environmental officials ignored existing regulations, past agency practices and case law when giving temporary approval for contractors to begin working.
The Environment Department has defended its decision, saying the temporary approval was limited to digging the shaft, not using it.
Don Hancock with the Southwest Research and Information Center said state officials essentially foreordained the permit request by allowing work to begin. He also said the state has not provided any technical basis for its decisions and that it reduced the amount of time the public had to comment on the project by delaying the release of a draft permit.
The group has suggested that the shaft, given its size and location, could be used to expand the repository. It says that creates potential for the government to send high-level and commercial waste to the site, along with new radioactive waste that will be generated by manufacturing plutonium cores for the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Despite congressional limits on the amount and type of waste that can be shipped to the repository, Hancock and other critics said the state’s actions have favored the federal government while limiting the public’s ability to give their input.
The repository’s hazardous waste permit also is up for renewal this year, and more legal wrangling is expected.