Oversight of NM nuclear facilities needed

The Albuquerque Journal recently published two op-eds – “NM has already done its share for the nuclear age,” March 31 and “Country must use WIPP to its fullest” April 1. The first piece correctly points out New Mexico has received a lot of out-of-state nuclear waste and is a target for much more. The second, by the chairman of the Carlsbad Nuclear Task Force, reiterates the Department of Energy (DOE) point of view on the volume-determination question.

Those arguments were effectively countered during New Mexico Environment Department hearings last year. The Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are gasses contained in the air space of the waste drum. The waste contained in the drum consists of any solid material, any liquid and any waste gases in the headspace of the drum. Thus, the entire volume of the drum contains waste. To argue otherwise may increase the allowable volume of the waste but may also do harm to workers and the environment.

The latest proposed change in volume definition is another example of mission creep. The DOE prefers to incrementally add projects to WIPP that expand it beyond the limits initially agreed by the state.

Both op-eds point to the need for an independent technical review that the state’s decision makers can rely on. When WIPP was being planned in the 1970s, the state demanded and received federal funding for independent oversight of the project. The resulting Environmental Evaluation Group (EEG) conducted the oversight between 1979 and 2004 and published 90 reports and hundreds of professional papers. It was funded by DOE until 1988 and by an act of U.S. Congress from 1989 onward. In 2004, the DOE stopped funding for EEG. During its existence, the public and the state relied on the information provided by EEG in making decisions about the project, but since 2004 the state is without such oversight.

WIPP is a 40-year old facility, maintenance costs are increasing, and the project is still recovering from the 2014 preventable underground fire and the accident due to an exploding drum that exposed workers to radiation and contaminated the facility. DOE has been ignoring the health and safety findings and recommendations of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) and has unilaterally passed internal orders that circumvent the laws governing WIPP.

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The DOE has recently submitted a draft to the Environmental Protection Agency for the every-five-years re-certification. These re-certifications, required by law, are comprehensive reports that have not been reviewed by a scientific organization representing the state of New Mexico for 15 years. With all the proposed changes and expansion of the WIPP mission, it is imperative that there be such a scientific review for this cycle of re-certification.

In spite of many operational problems and accidents due to the age of the facility, DOE has announced plans to bury more than 30 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium at WIPP. Also, not having been successful in establishing a high-level nuclear waste repository, DOE is now supporting the effort of a private company to bring that dangerous high-level waste to southeastern New Mexico for “consolidated interim storage.”

It is long past the time for the state of New Mexico to re-establish an independent, technically qualified state oversight organization with a dedicated group of scientists and engineers from various relevant fields of knowledge to ensure full understanding of the short and long-term risks of such nuclear projects in the Land of Enchantment.

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