The New Mexico Environment Department announced this week it will hold public hearings on a request to ship more radioactive waste into the state.
Currently, nuclear waste leaking from storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state needs a safer storage facility, and officials at the Department of Energy have identified the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP for short) in Carlsbad, NM as a possible new resting place.
The facility was designed to "permanently dispose of the nation's defense-related transuranic radioactive waste," according to a WIPP informational video. When it was built two decades ago, it was seen as an economic boost to Carlsbad's struggling economy.
Proponents of taking Hanford's waste say WIPP will continue to provide jobs to the community for the foreseeable future. Opponents say the stuff is hazardous and could be spilled in communities anywhere between the Northwest coast and southern New Mexico.
Besides public input, another problem for proponents of the move is transuranic versus high level waste, or what WIPP can actually handle.
KUNM's Elaine Baumgartel reported on the proposal when it was first announced earlier this year.
As part of the early negotiations between the state and the DOE, it was agreed that only transuranic, or TRU, waste consisting mainly of contaminated tools, clothing, soil and sludge would be allowed at WIPP. Transuranic waste is less radioactive than High Level Waste, which comes from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. WIPP is not equipped to handle HLW.
Transuranic waste has a lot of very long-lived radionuclides with higher numbers on the periodic table than uranium – think that special little box on the periodic table under the big one you studied in high school. Some radioactive stuff in it has a half-life of 24,000 years. That means this waste will be dangerous for a long time, longer than a lot of the other waste at Hanford.
And if you're imagining green ooze similar to what you might have seen in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, think again. Transuranic waste mainly consists of soil, tools, and clothing contaminated with radioactive materials.
Spent nuclear fuel is used fuel from a reactor that is no longer efficient in creating electricity, because its fission process has slowed. However, it is still thermally hot, highly radioactive, and potentially harmful. Until a permanent disposal repository for spent nuclear fuel is built, licensees must safely store this fuel at their reactors.
The cleanup of the site involves more than 53 million gallons of radioactive and chemically hazardous waste in 177 underground storage tanks, and about 25 million cubic feet (750,000 cubic meters) of buried or stored solid waste, as well as spent nuclear fuel, and plutonium in various forms. Toward that end, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of River Protection, has the mission to retrieve and treat Hanford’s tank waste and close its tank farms to protect the Columbia River.
Remember, transuranic waste is what WIPP can handle now, and Hanford has been managing its leaky tanks as High Level Waste. And as of 2004, transporting Hanford tank waste to WIPP has been banned in New Mexico.
To get around this, the Department of Energy asked the state to get rid of its ban on transporting waste from tanks at Hanford. In response, the New Mexico Environment Department will try to get more public input by categorizing the request a Class 3 instead of a Class 2.
“Elevating this permit modification to the Class 3 level will ensure the public’s views are carefully considered before a final decision on the modification request is made,” said NMED Secretary-Designate Ryan Flynn. “The Environment Department will ensure the regulatory process is transparent and fair to all of the interested parties, and our ultimate decision on this modification request will be science-based.”
The Albuquerque Journal reports explains the announcement this way.
In response, the Environment Department announced Monday afternoon that its answer was neither “yes” nor “no” to the proposal. Instead, it invoked a rule that triggers a potentially lengthy public hearing process before any decision can be made.
Put one more way: Hanford's nuclear waste will stay in Washington for up to another year before a final decision is made.