Things could get a lot hotter at southeastern New Mexico’s nuclear waste storage facility if the state carries out plans to relax its rules.
Opened in 1999, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) stores radioactive waste, such as contaminated equipment and soil, from as far away as the Idaho National Laboratory and Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation (HCN, 4/12/99: Nuclear waste dump opens).
Now, the U.S. Department of Energy and the facility’s private contractor, Washington TRU Solutions, want to accept hotter waste that must be handled robotically. They also want the state to allow for temporary aboveground storage and to eliminate a testing practice that ensures waste doesn’t exceed the facility’s environmental standards.
Despite blocking such requests during WIPP’s initial permitting process, the state is now poised to accept them. What the decision boils down to, according to Adam Rankin, communications director of the state Environment Department, is whether the changes comply with federal law regulating hazardous waste. "And we think they do," he says.
But New Mexico’s new stance marks a "total reversal" of its position during the initial permitting process, says Don Hancock of the citizens’ advocacy group Southwest Research and Information Center. He adds that the proposed changes could expose WIPP’s workers, and people along waste transportation routes, to more dangerous levels of radioactivity in the event of an accident.
The state will hold public hearings from May 31 to June 6 in Carlsbad and from June 7 to 9 in Santa Fe. For more information see www.nmenv.state.nm.us/wipp/ .