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Feds push plan to dispose plutonium using nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad

Adrian Hedden, Carlsbad Current-Argus

Federal nuclear waste managers said they planned to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus, weapons-grade plutonium at a nuclear repository in New Mexico after the waste is diluted to a lower level of radioactivity.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) proposed in 2020 a “dilute and dispose” method of eliminating the plutonium from the environment, ultimately via emplacement at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant repository near Carlsbad.

Before that can happen, the NNSA said the waste can be “downblended” to meet requirements at WIPP, which is designed to dispose of transuranic (TRU) waste that can only be of a certain level of radioactivity.

In an environmental impact statement (EIS) released last month, the NNSA said it preferred a plan that would see the plutonium shipped from the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas to Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico for processing, then to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina where it would be prepared for final disposal at WIPP.

That means the waste would travel through New Mexico at least twice which drew the ire of watchdog groups in the northern portion of the state, and concern from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Public comments were being accepted on the proposal until Feb. 14, and four hearings were scheduled: Jan. 19 in North Augusta, South Carolina, Jan. 24 in Carlsbad, Jan. 26 in Los Alamos and a virtual meeting on Jan. 30.

Information on the meetings and how to comment were posted in the Federal Register under citation 87 FR 77096.

New Mexico the nation’s ‘nuclear waste dump?’

Cindy Weehler, co-chair of Santa Fe-based activist group 285 ALL said the EIS called for the federal government to divert from WIPP’s original mission, potentially putting more New Mexicans at risk of exposure to radiation and for longer.

“Surplus plutonium is not the kind of waste that was agreed to when WIPP was defined,” she said. “We insist on an end to the emplacement of waste in New Mexico. We want an end to the weapons-based radioactive waste coming through our neighborhoods.”

The EIS did list alternatives to the preferred plan, potentially seeing the waste processed completely for disposal at either Savanna River or Los Alamos before shipment to WIPP.  

This could cut down on transportation, but Weehler said the NNSA’s overall plan was symptomatic of a broader effort to keep WIPP open beyond its previously defined closure date of 2024 and expand the kinds of wastes that can be disposed of at the facility.

“We want an end to the situation where New Mexico is the only nuclear waste dump for all 50 states,” Weehler said. “The concern is that if you increase the number of shipments, the number of years, and you increase the dangerousness of the waste, at some point, somewhere an accident is inevitable.

“That would be catastrophic for the community where it occurs.”

Don Hancock, nuclear waste program manager at Albuquerque-based government watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center said the plutonium waste was never intended for disposal at WIPP.

He said the federal government should prioritize legacy TRU waste sitting at DOE sites like Los Alamos as was the repository’s original intention.  

“Dilute and dispose waste shouldn’t go to WIPP in the first place,” Hancock said. “NNSA wants to prioritize waste that WIPP was not designed for.”

New Mexico, Carlsbad leaders clash over plutonium disposal

In April 2022, Lujan Grisham echoed the concerns in a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, sharing a petition from 285 ALL that gathered 1,165 signatures in opposition from across the 10 states Weehler said were impacted by the transportation route.

Lujan Grisham wrote that many New Mexicans had “ongoing frustrations” with the federal government not involving New Mexicans in nuclear waste disposal plans that involved the state’s repository – the only such facility in the U.S.

“Specifically, the New Mexicans who signed the petition raised concerns about the transportation of the surplus plutonium waste stream between the DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the WIPP,” read the letter to Granholm.

“As Governor, I take these concerns seriously and request that the Department of Energy take action to address the issues raised by New Mexicans.”

But the project was supported by local leaders in Carlsbad, about 30 miles west of the WIPP site, and the city’s Mayor Dale Janway, a frequent supporter of operations at WIPP who argued the program would be conducted safely.

“The proposed action is to dilute surplus plutonium to prevent use and disposing of the resulting CH-TRU waste at WIPP. I support this proposal as a safe, cost-effective solution,” Janway said in a statement.  


January 6, 2023 - Posted by | - plutonium, USA

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