Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE January 1997

Progress on WIPP

Efforts by the Department of Energy (DOE) to open an underground repository for radioactive waste leftover from nuclear weapons production received two major boosts last fall. New legislation and a favorable report from the National Research Council bode well for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) -- a disposal facility built in bedded salt layers 2,000 feet below the surface of the desert near Carlsbad, N.M.

For over 40 years, U.S. policy-makers have discussed deep, geologic repositories as a solution to the nuclear waste problem, but efforts to actually open such a repository have been plagued with problems. The proposed site for spent nuclear fuel and other high-level waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is unlikely to open before 2010, if at all.

The WIPP repository will be used to store equipment, clothing, and other material contaminated by "transuranic" elements -- radioactive elements, such as plutonium, that have atomic numbers higher than uranium. Transuranic waste is much less radioactive than high-level nuclear waste, but the radioactivity is very long-lived. Before 1970, this waste was disposed in shallow trenches with other low-level waste, but since that time it has been packed in 55-gallon drums and crates at 10 different DOE facilities around the country.

Legislating a fast track

The largest amount of transuranic waste is now stored at the Energy Department's Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. It was thus no surprise last year when Idaho's senior senator, Larry Craig (R), introduced legislation (S. 1402) that would expedite the WIPP siting process by amending the 1992 WIPP Land Withdrawal Act, which gave DOE control of the New Mexico site. Craig's bill exempted transuranic waste from compliance with regulations promulgated under the Solid Waste Disposal Act, eliminated waste retrievability provisions, and established a target date of Nov. 30, 1997, for DOE to begin storing waste at WIPP.

Many of the changes in S. 1402 basically legitimize the status quo. Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and DOE have already concluded that meeting the radiation standards for WIPP will ensure public safety, making additional regulation unnecessary and burdensome. The waste retrievability provision dated to earlier DOE plans for in-situ testing of the repository with actual waste. Due to public outcry, however, that plan was scrapped in favor of laboratory simulations.

A similar bill (H.R. 1663), introduced in the House by Rep. Joe Skeen (R-N.M.), contained an additional provision transferring responsibility for certifying compliance from EPA to DOE. The administration vigorously opposed such a shift, pointing out that DOE self-regulation had created the waste management problem in the first place. The provision was removed in committee.

Senator Craig's bill became an amendment to a bill authorizing defense spending (S. 1745) that President Clinton signed in early September, but not before the administration and the New Mexico congressional delegation had obtained certain modifications. Language was added clarifying EPA's role and restricting WIPP to handling only defense nuclear wastes. Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) also added a provision authorizing $20 million for New Mexico road improvements.

Both of New Mexico's senators supported Craig's bill, in stark contrast to the unswerving opposition of the Nevada delegation to the Yucca Mountain project. That opposition helped block legislation last year that would have expedited the site-characterization process at Yucca Mountain and opened an interim facility nearby.

Support from the National Research Council

In October, the National Research Council released a report assessing DOE's scientific and technical investigations at WIPP as they relate to the site's overall suitability as a repository. The committee that wrote the report has provided independent oversight of the project since 1978.

The report arrived just as DOE was submitting its application to EPA for certification of WIPP's compliance with radiation release standards. To receive certification, DOE must demonstrate that the WIPP site has a "reasonable expectation" of isolating the waste for 10,000 years.

The committee members strengthened DOE's case. Their report concludes that the repository can successfully isolate waste for that period "provided [the repository] is sealed effectively and remains undisturbed by human activity."

The significance of this conclusion, however, is tempered by that second caveat. Meeting compliance standards after human intrusion remains the site's greatest challenge.

The report recognizes that challenge and suggests ways to meet it. Principal among them is a recommendation that EPA not judge the acceptability of WIPP solely or primarily on the basis of predictions of future human activities and technologies because such predictions are inherently unscientific.

The most likely scenario for human intrusion involves the drilling of oil and gas wells through the repository and into a briny aquifer below. Contaminated fluid could then flow back up the well to a shallower aquifer used as a water source for farming or grazing. The report cautions that current EPA standards do not take into account the fact that radionuclide releases to the environment via groundwater pathways at WIPP would be predominantly in non-potable water, greatly reducing the risk of human exposure.

The WIPP site is located in the Delaware Basin, a well-known hydrocarbon reservoir that extends into Texas and Oklahoma. When the site was chosen in the mid-1970s, little exploration had taken place in that part of the basin, and it was assumed that the area held little potential. Since that time, however, a number of producing fields have been developed nearby. The report suggests that these resources will probably be exhausted within the next 100 years and urges EPA to reconsider its assumption that drilling activity over the next 10,000 years will occur at a rate similar to the last 100 years. At a press conference when the report was released, Charles Fairhurst, the committee chairman and a professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, went on to suggest "pre-emptive mining" to extract known deposits and further reduce future interest in drilling.

The report also stresses the importance of on-going DOE laboratory studies that may show additional ways to limit radionuclide transport through the rock. In addition, the committee urged DOE to use "engineering methods" to lessen potential exposure from human intrusion. For example, WIPP operators could isolate individual rooms in the repository or backfill rooms with minerals that absorb radionucleides.

More obstacles ahead

These recommendations will be welcomed by critics of EPA who argue that the assumptions behind the agency's standards are unrealistic and unattainable. The National Research Council report, however, has its own critics. Opponents have charged that members of the advisory panel were influenced by political motivations and that the group based its conclusions on incomplete data.

Several environmental groups in New Mexico have pointed to the need for additional information on water flow through the site and the impact of potential climate changes that could occur over the next 10,000 years. The report notes that both of these issues have been extensively addressed but may be impossible to resolve.

Continued opposition from these groups and others could result in a protracted legal battle. A court contest may be only one of many obstacles that keep DOE from meeting the November 1997 target date for opening the repository.

David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute

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