Mar 29, 2024 - Energy & Environment

New Mexico nuke waste site offers lessons for others

Entrance to Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Entrance to New Mexico's WIPP site. Photo: Chuck McCutcheon/Axios

CARLSBAD, N.M. — Supporters of the only permanent underground U.S. repository for nuclear waste say it can offer lessons for other states and communities that might weigh similar storage projects.

Why it matters: As nuclear power is gaining wider public and political acceptance, scientists and others agree that determining what to do with radioactive materials over the long term must become a bigger piece of the puzzle.

  • High-level nuclear waste from commercial plants "is sitting at multiple sites, and we need to make progress on a solution," former Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair Allison Macfarlane told Axios. "We're pretty far from a solution."

Driving the news: The Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) celebrated its 25th anniversary on Tuesday, with a ceremony featuring current and former officials who played a role in its 1999 opening.

  • At WIPP, located in southeast New Mexico's desolate oil country, discarded items such as gloves, tools and other plutonium-contaminated materials are trucked in from DOE nuclear bomb factories across the country.
  • The waste is buried 2,150 feet underground in salt caverns designed to eventually collapse and seal off the waste.

The big picture: WIPP opened after nearly three decades of protracted debates and lawsuits. But it has long garnered support from leaders in Carlsbad — 26 miles away — and surrounding towns enticed by the jobs, and other economic benefits.

  • Other countries, including Finland, Sweden and Canada, are constructing or are in the process of moving toward building their own waste repositories.
  • "One common element to each program is that they are based on the consent of the local community," said a blog post this week from Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy.

Between the lines: The main obstacle to building more waste storage sites "is overcoming the perception that nuclear energy is only dangerous, that there's no beneficial use and it's so hazardous," said Michael Gerle, director of the Energy Department's environmental compliance division at WIPP.

  • To cement trust, Gerle said, WIPP officials go to local fairs, schools and other places to educate any would-be skeptics.
  • Employees also maintain visibility in the community by volunteering to clean up the nearby Pecos River, working at food banks and assisting with STEM education.
  • Such outreach helped buoy support, even after a 2014 accident involving an exploded waste drum — filled with the wrong type of cat litter — temporarily suspended shipments to WIPP, local officials said.
  • "The community gathered itself together and became very supportive of reopening," said John Heaton, a former New Mexico state representative.

Nevada's Yucca Mountain is the only permanent U.S. high-level waste storage site to have been studied since the 1980s. It's been mothballed since the Obama administration amid unyielding state opposition.

  • The Biden administration is proceeding with a "consent-based siting" approach for temporary storage that doesn't federally dictate where any waste should be put. That approach was influenced by the WIPP experience.

Former Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said other states considering hosting waste sites also must develop, in advance, a formal process that spells out the state's role.

  • Bingaman helped negotiate New Mexico's "consultation and cooperation" agreement while serving as state attorney general in 1981. It created a scientific watchdog agency to analyze WIPP's technical merits and ensured that state officials were granted access to all project information.
  • "The consultation and cooperation agreement should be a template for how states and the federal government work together on important national projects in the future," Bingaman said at the WIPP event.

What's next: New Mexico officials issued a 10-year operating permit for WIPP last November containing a provision that environmentalists had sought.

  • It requires the Energy Department to summarize its progress annually toward the goal of finding a new repository for defense-generated waste to be located outside of New Mexico.
  • The issue remains the subject of internal DOE discussions, Gerle said. But environmentalists remain eager for progress.
  • "They could issue a one-sentence report saying they're taking no action," said Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste program at Albuquerque's Southwest Research and Information Center. "But if they do that very often, we're going to say that we in the state have to take further action."
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