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New Mexico could get more nuclear waste, and perhaps high level nuclear waste

More nuclear waste could come to New Mexico, Santa Fe New Mexican, By Rebecca Moss |, Jan 5, 2019 

       In the final days of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, the state Environment Department approved a controversial change to how federal officials measure the amount of nuclear waste buried some 2,000 feet underground in Southern New Mexico salt beds.

Proponents of the change say it merely clarifies that the storage site will measure the actual volume of transuranic waste deposited there rather than the volume of the massive exterior waste drums, called overpack containers — and the air inside. But critics say the result will be an increase in the quantity of material stored at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

Several nuclear watchdog groups, which say they intend to appeal the decision, also fear the change in WIPP’s hazardous waste permit from the state could open the door to allowing high-level nuclear waste to be brought into New Mexico.

It’s unclear whether the Democratic administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who took office last week, will support the Environment Department’s decision in December or take any action to overturn it. The governor hasn’t yet appointed a Cabinet secretary to lead the Environment Department.

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, said the administration will be reviewing the potential impacts of the modification. But, Stelnicki said in an email, “that’s the case for all of the prior administration’s decisions.”

The governor “certainly recognizes safety at WIPP, for the public and for workers, is utterly paramount,” he added. “Safety is the expectation and that expectation will guide decision-making.”

Under the Land Withdrawal Act of 1992, Congress limited WIPP’s capacity to 6.2 million cubic feet, or just over 175,500 cubic meters. The plant, now about 52 percent full, is the only permanent repository for nuclear waste in the nation.

The 1992 law also limits the type of nuclear material that can be stored at the underground facility.

Under WIPP’s hazardous waste permit from the state, the volume of material stored at the plant has been measured based on the size of each exterior waste container.

Last year, however, the Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC, a private company that operates the plant, told the New Mexico Environment Department the permit should be altered because it was forcing them to overcalculate the amount of waste at WIPP. Language in the permit required them to count empty space in large packing containers used to store smaller waste vessels — like hulking Russian nesting dolls. …….

Still, critics believe the waste measurement change — after nearly 20 years of consistent measurement procedures — is a thinly veiled effort to expand the size and mission of WIPP.

“It was the wrong way to go,” said Steve Zappe, who testified at the Carlsbad hearing. Zappe spent 17 years working on WIPP for the state Environment Department and helped craft the plant’s original waste permit.

The permit modification, he said, was allowing the Department of Energy to redefine how much nuclear waste it can dispose of at WIPP without going through Congress……….

January 6, 2019 - Posted by | USA, wastes

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