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The long and winding road to WIPP.

For 15 years, the U.S. Department of Energy has been working to open the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico as a final resting place for certain nuclear wastes from weapons production. Progress is slow and the hurdles are many. Last October the 102nd Congress finally passed twilight-hour, hard-fought legislation withdrawing the 10,240 acre WIPP site from the control of the Department of Interior and handing it over to DOE. The legislation guaranteed $20 million a year to New Mexico after the plant opens. Land withdrawal removes a key barrier blocking the opening of WIPP for tests.

Before tests can begin to determine the safety of disposing waste in salt beds 2,150 feet underground, there are still a number of obstacles to overcome. Federal agencies from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have certain regulatory responsibilities, and so does the state of New Mexico. And public safety personnel along potential routes must receive additional training for accident response that meets federal standards. If there are no legal challenges, the site could open for tests as early as September 1993. However, citizens and environmental groups are likely to continue their vociferous protests and may file suit no matter what administrative actions are taken. Full-scale disposal operations probably would not start until the 21st century.

In 1979 Congress authorized WIPP, located at a desert site east of Carlsbad, N.M., as a research and development facility for the safe disposal of transuranic radioactive wastes produced by weapons manufacture. These wastes are largely ordinary items such as rags, rubber gloves, lab coats, plastic bags and discarded glassware contaminated with radioactive elements like plutonium--which have a half-life of 24,000 years or so and are dangerous to living things if ingested.

The public doesn't like the idea of having nuclear waste around and particularly of moving it on the highways--and in fact, nuclear technocrats and environmental groups disagree about whether it can be safely transported.

A 1988 state-federal showdown brought the transportation issue into national focus. Governor Cecil Andrus of Idaho stopped two boxcars of waste from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant in Colorado that were destined for temporary storage in his state. He was angry that WIPP had not opened as scheduled earlier in the year and hoped to put pressure on DOE to move faster. Andrus said that as long as Idaho was seen as an interim storage site, a permanent solution would not be found. The crisis passed when weapons production at Rocky Flats ceased in 1989. But new attention was brought to bear on transportation was brought to bear on transportation issues like emergency response to accidents, the integrity of shipping containers and highway routing.

State leaders, particularly in the 25 states where WIPP waste is stored or through which it will travel, are aware of public concern and have been making plans. Under the auspices of the Western Governors' Association, seven western states (Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming) are cooperating with DOE in a program to ensure safe (and what is called "uneventful") transportation of nuclear waste through their jurisdictions. Although rail transportation is thought to be safer, only truck shipments are envisioned during the five-year test phase.

Each state is responsible for developing policy and procedures related to accident prevention, emergency preparedness and public information. Elements of the program include procedures for bad weather and road conditions, safe parking, advance notice of shipments and mutual aid agreements for response to accidents, as well as selection and monitoring of carriers, inspection of drivers, vehicles and shipping containers; emergency responder training; and provision of radiation detection equipment. In addition to planning, the project is proceeding with dry runs. A mock accident was staged near Colorado Springs two years ago and another one took place in September in Idaho to test accident response procedures. A satellite tracking system will be used by DOE to pinpoint the location of trucks carrying waste.

Another concern of WIPP critics is whether the waste containers used can withstand the crushing that might occur in an accident. The TRUPACT-II containers, specially manufactured for this purpose, are stainless steel cylinders--10 feet tall and eight feet in diameter--with walls consisting of two layers of quarter-inch stainless steel and 10 inches of insulation foam. Each holds 14 55-gallon barrels of waste stacked in two layers. The regulations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Transportation require tests of the containers involving a high-temperature fire, immersion in water, attempted puncturing and a 30-foot drop. Crush tests are not required by the NRC, even though crushing in a truck accident is a likely scenario, according to DOE's 1989 draft environmental impact statement.

"As stringent as the NRC array of tests may be, it does not allow either NRC or the manufacturer to ascertain how a container will perform in a crush situation," says Melinda Kassen, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund. "Therefore the fundamental underpinnings of the NRC certification process, at least with respect to truck transport, have been called into question." DOE's WIPP operator, Westing-house Electric Corporation, explained in a letter to the Colorado Department of Health that "the crush test was not performed because it would have been less damaging than the tests that were performed." The larger question of the adequacy of the NRC testing of containers is still a subject of debate among DOE, the nuclear industry and environmental interest groups.

A state oversight group is concerned about explosions caused by the gases produced by the hazardous substances in the wastes. A 1991 report by the New Mexico Environmental Evaluation Group, located at the N.M. Institute of Mining and Technology, found that ignition of mixed waste inside the barrels is more common than previously thought (only one instance had been documented) and recommended that DOE take steps to limit conditions that could result in an explosion. DOE's studies conclude that even if a release or explosion were to occur, "no adverse human health effects are expected" due to low concentration of such chemicals (called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs) in the containers and the physical form of the waste, which reduces the amount available for release.

Don Hancock of the Southwest Research Institute, an Albuquerque think tank critical of WIPP, does not fear the problem of volatile organic compounds as much during the test phase because the waste will be stringently tested before shipment. But he is not satisfied that VOCs have been addressed long term, because it still is not known how much of the volatile compounds are in the waste.

Where the shipments will travel and whether they are safe is another concern. A recent survey in Oregon found that a significant number of citizens are sincerely afraid that nuclear waste shipments will harm them personally or harm their community. Routes that minimize risk are of paramount importance. Department of Transportation routing guidelines call for the use of interstate highways, but states can designate alternate routes if they so choose after conducting a routing analysis. Waste carriers choose routes from the designated list. Colorado and New Mexico have designated routes that will carry most of the waste for the test phase. Other states, through programs like that of the Western Governors' Association, will be evaluating routes and assessing infrastructure and accident response needs during the next five years.

The 10-year test period required by the new law will consist of data collection, analysis and documentation to judge the performance of WIPP as a disposal facility able to contain the waste in compliance with EPA standards. Researchers will examine the possibility of water infiltration into the caverns that could corrode waste containers and carry radioactive elements into the ground water system, and will perform other tests as well. During the test phase, the new legislation limits the waste to 4,250 drums (0.5 percent of the caverns' capacity or about 100 shipments), all of it retrievable and none of it composed of high-level waste or spent fuel. The waste must be retrievable in case the site does not meet standards set by EPA during the test phase. DOE must prepare and submit to EPA a test phase plan, a waste retrieval plan and a decommissioning plan. The decommissioning plan, which details what will happen to the facility after it stops taking waste, must be developed within five years.

The state of New Mexico will receive $20 million per year for each of the first 15 years when waste is first moved to WIPP. Beyond that, funds indexed for inflation are authorized, although no dollar amount is set. New Mexico must give some of the money to affected local governments and can use funds for independent environmental and economic studies. Much of it will be used to back state bonds for road improvements, new highway construction and for environmental oversight.

To begin shipping waste for final disposal, DOE must meet EPA standards, which require protection of the environment from certain levels of radioactivity for 10,000 years. Southwest Research's Hancock is doubtful about the prospect. "I'm skeptical about WIPP's ability to meet any legitimate disposal standard without expensive changes, including designing a new shipment container, changing out corroded waste drums and treating waste to decrease volatility. The new administration will have to make some decisions about spending new dollars after the $1.3 billion already spent. WIPP is a Cold War facility built to store weapons waste until 2013; its purpose should now be re-evaluated in a post-Cold War scenario."

DOE, on the other hand, is committed to making WIPP safe for disposal operations beyond the test period. The dismantling of nuclear warheads and weapons facilities creates waste that requires disposal. The book on WIPP, it would seem, will have several more chapters.

WIPP Battle Started 40 Years Ago

For nearly 40 years, people have been trying to solve the nuclear waste problem. In 1955, the National Academy of Sciences decided that salt deposits were the most promising geologic feature for isolating nuclear waste, and by 1962 the U.S. Geological Survey identified the Permian Basin covering parts of New Mexico, Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma as a suitable geologic formation. None of the states seemed eager to play host, but DOE's predecessor agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, fixed on southeastern New Mexico, and in 1979 Congress authorized WIPP.

Court battles followed, with New Mexico alleging violations of both state and federal law. The court required a negotiated agreement between the state and DOE on state concerns like transportation monitoring, highway upgrading, emergency response and accident liability. Meanwhile DOE was drilling a 2,000-foot hole 12 feet wide and preparing to proceed with full facility construction. The $1 billion facility was competed in 1988, but it did not open due to lingering regulatory questions.

During the 1980s, DOE was forced to comply with all applicable state, federal and local standards, regulations and laws including those of EPA; but in 1987 the U.S. Court of Appeals threw out a portion of the radiation protection standards for radioactive waste disposal, leaving no repository standards applicable to WIPP. The new legislation reaffirmed most of these standards and required EPA to establish generic disposal standards by April 30, 1993.

In 1990, New Mexico gained authority to regulate WIPP-bound radioactive mixed wastes, and designated a preferred route from the state's northern border to the WIPP site. But in October of the next year, the state filed suit to stop the impending shipments, and the U.S. District Court upheld the state. In January 1992, the court nullified the administrative land withdrawal order and that decision was upheld on appeal in July. Last October, both houses of Congress adopted the conference report on WIPP land withdrawal, thus eliminating a crucial obstacle to WIPP's operation.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; obstacles to operation of Waste and Isolation Pilot Plant, New Mexico
Author:Reed, James B.
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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