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WIPP seeks permit changes ahead of reopening

New Mexico’s nuclear waste repository has requested that the state approve changes to its permit that will clear the way for it to reopen more than two years after it closed down due to fire and radiation accidents.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad has asked the state Environment Department to sign off on permit modifications having to do with ventilation in the underground repository and changes to its contingency plans in the event of another emergency.

WIPP has spent the past two years trying to recover from two separate events in February 2014: a fire on a salt haul truck and the bursting of a drum of nuclear waste that contaminated the underground facility with radiation.Cleaning up the repository has been a unique challenge, given that WIPP’s enormous waste disposal rooms are mined from ancient salt beds 2,150 feet below the surface.

WIPP is asking the Environment Department to drop a requirement in its hazardous waste facility permit that requires waste disposal rooms to have a ventilation rate of at least 35,000 cubic feet of air per minute when workers are present. WIPP is asking for the flexibility to implement its own safety measures when the ventilation rate falls.

Ventilation has been a challenge ever since the radiation release contaminated a key exhaust shaft, forcing the facility to run its air system in filtration mode, meaning far less air can be pulled in from the surface and circulated underground than before. Ventilation rates are a seventh of what they were before the 2014 incident.

Don Hancock, a longtime and frequent WIPP critic, said the ventilation requirement is meant to protect workers from volatile organic compounds, or VOCs – colorless, odorless chemicals that can be harmful when inhaled. VOCs are vented from drums of nuclear waste so they don’t cause potentially explosive buildup; also, running diesel equipment underground produces VOCs in vehicle exhaust.

Under the modification requested, “The permit goes from having a strict regulatory requirement to essentially having no real measure to determine whether it’s OK or not,” Hancock said. “They are getting out of any ventilation requirements in the active disposal rooms, which means they are unregulated.”

WIPP spokesman Tim Runyon said in an emailed response to questions, “The proposed change would allow WIPP to implement compensatory measures in situations where the active room ventilation rate of 35,000 standard cubic feet per minute, currently required by the permit, could not be met.”

Those measures include “use of respiratory protection equipment, would provide an equivalent level of protection to what is currently afforded” under the ventilation requirement, he said.

“The most important thing at WIPP is worker safety and DOE takes that very seriously,” said John Heaton, chairman of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force. “As we all know, there is reduced ventilation in the mine. If workers are in Panel 7 working, they will not only be monitoring for air quality but those workers will actually be suited up and they will have air supply masks on them.” Panel 7 is the location of the radiation release and also where waste emplacement will restart.

WIPP is hoping to reopen its doors to partial waste emplacement operations by year end, and the permit modifications are one of several hurdles that still need to be cleared before it can do so.

An interim ventilation system that is expected to nearly double the amount of air underground has taken longer to install than WIPP officials expected. From a target of mid-2015, officials now say it may be ready next month.

The House of Representatives Appropriations Committee addressed the ventilation issue in an April report recommending a $292.7 million fiscal 2017 budget for WIPP.

“Operating WIPP at substandard ventilation rates for an extended period of time is not acceptable and full recovery needs to remain a high priority for the Department,” according to an April report by the House Appropriations Committee.

The other permit modification requested of the state is less contentious and would incorporate new emergency response requirements that are the result of lessons learned from the 2014 events.

The comment period ends Aug. 8 and a decision by the Environment Department is expected in September.