New Mexico negotiates more regulatory oversight of nuclear waste site

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) | The Center for Land Use Interpretation


New Mexico leaders, long worried and anxious over the storage of nuclear waste in their state recently negotiated a settlement agreement with several groups that opposed a ten-year renewal permit for the storage plant in Carlsbad.

The New Mexico Environment Department said it reached the settlement working in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Salado Isolation Mining Contractors LLC (SIMCO). The agreement focused on the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant located in Carlsbad.

The WIPP facility was authorized by Congress in 1979 for the disposal of transuranic (TRU) radioactive waste materials generated by atomic energy defense activities of the United States.

The agreement includes modified conditions that provide greater regulatory oversight, improve safeguards, and authorize disposal of waste in two new underground panels over the next ten-year permit term. The modified conditions also prioritize legacy waste from cleanup activities, including from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“Communities in New Mexico and around the U.S. benefit from the clean-up of legacy waste and its disposal at WIPP,” said NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney. “The new permit conditions affirm New Mexico’s authority and position that all roads lead from WIPP – we are no longer the last stop for clean-up but the driving force in that process that begins here.”

The parties resolved the contentious issues by modifying various conditions for inclusion in the permit renewal after four days of negotiations. Secretary Kenney played a pivotal role in the negotiations and rescinded his orders which authorized a hearing and appointed a hearing officer.

As a result, a permit hearing will not occur. Instead, NMED will publish the WIPP permit containing the modified conditions on August 15, 2023. The final renewal permit will be issued in October 2023 with an effective date 30 days later. WIPP is currently operating on an expired but administratively extended permit.

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Highlights of the settlement agreement included in the renewal permit are:

  1. Prioritizing legacy waste clean-up and disposal at WIPP, including from Los Alamos National Laboratory.
  2. Requiring a full and transparent inventory of legacy waste around the U.S. for ultimate disposal at the WIPP through a new report that provides for stakeholder input.
  3. Enabling the suspension of waste shipments to WIPP if there is evidence of a threat to human health or the environment.
  4. Requiring a final facility footprint to accompany any request for new storage panels beyond the two panels authorized in the renewal permit.
  5. Initiating a permit revocation and reissuance process should Congress increase the storage capacity or expand the types of wastes accepted at WIPP.
  6. Requiring the DOE to document progress in siting another geologic repository in a state other than New Mexico through a new annual report.
  7. Conducting surveillance of oil and natural gas production and saltwater disposal operations around the perimeter of the facility to ensure the safety of WIPP.
  8. Enhancing the public participation process by providing quarterly public forums, updating the Community Relations Plan, and requiring pre-submittal meetings for complex modifications to the renewal permit going forward.
  9. Tying WIPP’s closure to both the renewal permit term of 10 years and the capacity limits of the federal Land Withdrawal Act unless a timely renewal application is received with an accurate inventory of all remaining wastes awaiting cleanup and disposal at WIPP.

“Going into the process, my goal was to preserve and strengthen our relationships with stakeholders,” said NMED’s Acting WIPP Program Manager Megan McLean, who moderated the negotiations along with the facilitator. “The process worked given a strong mediator, the participation of the Cabinet Secretary, and the willingness of all parties to understand the interests of others rather than sticking to hardline positions.”