July 21, 2007
ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico is on the short list of sites to dispose of dismantled nuclear reactor parts and other moderately radioactive waste, the U.S. Department of Energy said.
Current regulations make the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad and the yet-to-be-built Yucca Mountain site in Nevada the leading candidates for the job.
They are the only ones where waste could be buried deep underground to keep it isolated for more than 500 years, the Albuquerque Journal reported Saturday in a copyright story.
The Energy Department will launch an environmental study Monday of options to deal with the waste. The program would plug a hole in the complex web of federal regulations governing how various radioactive waste should be handled.
Other options the agency will study include shallow burial at Los Alamos National Laboratory, DOE project chief Christine Gelles said Friday.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman quickly disagreed with the possibility of expanding WIPP’s mission to handle the new type of waste. Part of the deal when the New Mexico Democrat helped draft the law in the early 1990s that allowed WIPP to open was a sharp restriction on the types of waste that would be allowed there.
“I do not support opening up this agreement to broaden the types of waste that can be disposed of at WIPP,” Bingaman said.
The state Environment Department’s response also was lukewarm. “Any proposal to widen the scope of WIPP or to dispose of additional waste at LANL will require a thorough analysis to make sure the plans protect New Mexicans,” said Jon Goldstein, the department’s director of water and waste management.
Currently, low-level waste can be dumped in shallow landfills, but high-level waste, like used nuclear reactor fuel, is in storage awaiting the eventual opening of the long-stalled Yucca Mountain project — a deep mine, like WIPP, dug into a mountain. A third class, plutonium-contaminated “transuranic” waste from nuclear weapons work, is being sent to WIPP.
That leaves a bunch of waste too radioactive to meet the basic “low-level” shallow burial criteria but not hot enough for Yucca Mountain and not legal at WIPP because it doesn’t meet the criteria set up when WIPP was opened.
Under federal regulations, the primary option is deep burial.
Dean Hancock, head of the Nuclear Waste Safety Project at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, said he and other activists prefer “hardened on-site storage.” That would keep the waste where it is or at a few central sites near the nuclear reactors where the waste was generated.