In the northern reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert, 30 miles east of the town of Carlsbad and the Pecos River, sits the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). It is the nation’s only deep repository for transuranic nuclear waste, storing such waste from around the country.
WIPP is carved into the most biologically diverse desert in the Western Hemisphere, situated in a mined salt repository 2,150 feet below ground. Four large ventilation shafts connect the Transuranic Nuclear Waste Facility to the complex landscape above, home to more species of cacti than any other desert on the planet. It is a site at odds with the natural wonders that surround it.
Built more than 20 years ago, WIPP accepted its first waste shipment in 1999 and has been storing transuranic waste ever since. On February 5, 2014, a salt haul truck caught fire inside the underground facility, prompting its evacuation and shutting down air monitoring equipment. Ten days later, a radiation leak was detected.
Eventually it was discovered that an improperly packed waste barrel had burst, causing radioactive sludge to leak throughout the facility. Monitoring equipment detected trace amounts of airborne radiation above ground. As a result, nuclear waste processing at the facility was shut down for three years, resuming operations in 2017.
Originally slated to begin closing in 2024, the DOE listed no potential end date in its recent permit renewal application to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). When asked directly for a closing date, the DOE said it could take until the year 2083 for WIPP to dispose of all current and projected waste—indicating that they plan to keep WIPP in operation for years to come, potentially in perpetuity.
New Mexico doesn’t have the authority to end WIPP’s operation unilaterally, given the complex nature of the permitting program and the regulatory authority split between the DOE, federal Environmental Protection Agency, and NMED.
In response, the NMED drafted a 10-year permit renewal to counter the 2083 operation term proposed by the DOE. The NMED also sought to engage New Mexicans by soliciting input through an online comment forum and public meetings. This was when CVNM got involved.
Working with our allies – Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Watch New Mexico, and Southwest Research and Information Center – we requested a public hearing on the draft permit. Rather than go through the hearing process, the DOE opted to negotiate.
In June, the NMED set up four days of negotiations between the agency, DOE, New Mexico stakeholders, and WIPP’s operating contractor, Salado Isolation Mining Contractors (SIMCO). I was there representing CVNM Education Fund and was joined by champions for the environment and public health from around the state. With the help of our allies, NMED Secretary James Kenney, and Hazardous Waste Bureau Chief Megan McClean, we were able to take some tough stances – and earn some big wins for New Mexico’s future.
Ultimately, a compromise was reached. A key agreement was that the DOE must submit an annual report on its progress toward establishing another repository for radioactive waste in a state other than New Mexico.
Here are a few of the other provisions in the WIPP renewal final permit:
- NMED will exercise its power to close the site if Congress changes the limit on the amount of waste that can be disposed of at WIPP
- DOE and its contractors will implement a new plan with a complete inventory of legacy waste around the U.S. for disposal at WIPP
- additional public notice and participation opportunities will be provided
- the removal of waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory to WIPP will be prioritized to help ensure that contamination at the Lab doesn’t reach the regional aquifer or downstream waters such as the Rio Grande
The permit went into effect on November 3, 2023, but the full legacy of WIPP remains to be seen. The next decade requires us to be vigilant in monitoring and enforcing these essential provisions. We must keep New Mexicans safe and ensure we do not remain the dumping ground for the nation’s nuclear waste. We must also ensure that, in the future, diversity and equity are at the forefront of these efforts, with full and effective engagement of frontline communities most impacted by legacy uranium mining and ongoing waste exposure.
The WIPP renewal permit is a historic win for our state. It exemplifies what can be achieved when diverse interests work together toward a common goal. We know that true meaningful progress is accomplished one step at a time, and with your support CVNM will continue to march forward.