As the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant hopes to construct a new utility shaft at the nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) announced a public hearing in May to receive public comments on the project.
The hearing was to be held via Zoom from noon to 4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. May 17 and could extend to additional days as needed.
In the public announcement for the hearing, NMED reported opponents of the project filed seven hearing requests and public hearings were held in December 2020 to resolve concerns but were not successful.
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So, NMED extended the public comment period until the end of the upcoming hearing in hopes to find solutions.
“Negotiations, moderated by NMED, between the Permittees and commenters that requested a hearing were held Dec. 15, 17 and 18, 2020 in an attempt to resolve issues that had given rise to opposition by those who requested a hearing,” read the hearing announcement. “The discussions were unsuccessful and hearing requests were not withdrawn.”
To build the shaft, which will extend 2,275 feet underground and provide increased ventilation and access to the WIPP underground, the U.S. Department of Energy needs state approval to modify its permit to operate the WIPP site – a repository for low-level nuclear waste consisting of clothing materials or equipment radiated during nuclear operations.
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It’s part of a broader effort to improve airflow in the underground combined with the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS), a series of filtration building, and fans aimed at adding additional clean air for workers in the underground.
Available air at WIPP was compromised in an accidental radiological release in 2014 which led to multiple areas blocked off due to contamination and a three year shutdown of WIPP’s primary operations.
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The utility shaft project was finalized in 2019 under a $75 million contract but became controversial as nuclear watchdog groups worried the shaft was needed to build more disposal panels and extend the lifetime of WIPP beyond its 2024 closure date as prescribed in the facility’s current permit.
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A new draft permit for WIPP is under federal review and removed the 2024 closure date, records show.
Opponents contended WIPP needed approval to extend the life and capacity of WIPP before it should go about building new utility shafts and other infrastructure in support of such a decision.
Critics also voiced disapproval and opposition to a temporary authorization (TA) issued by NMED to begin building before public input concluded and the permit was modified to actually use the shaft.
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An extension of the TA was denied by NMED in November 2020, effectively halting the project until the permit could be modified.
NMED cited a lack of adequate planning and a spike in COVID-19 infections at WIPP when denying the extension.
“Given the current high incidence rate at the WIPP facility, including a reported death of an employee, the circumstances of which are currently unknown, it is clear that the permittees are unable to successfully mitigate COVID-19 risk to protect human health while conducting the activities under the scope of this request,” read NMED’s letter of denial for the TA.
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Local government leaders in Carlsbad supported the project during past hearings and in statements submitted to NMED.
Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway said in a letter of support that the project was needed for WIPP’s ability to emplace waste and mine new disposal panels simultaneously.
These operations and the facility’s continued success was important to the local community, per Janway’s comments, as a major employer and economic driver.
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“The men and women working in the WIPP underground are my top priority, and they have told me they support this project,” Janway wrote. “There has been no impediment to opportunities for public input or information. We encourage the NMED to promptly move forward with this permitting process.”
Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb also wrote in support of the project, citing worker improved worker safety to be achieved with better airflow.
“The employees of the WIPP underground – who are our friends and neighbors – tell us they strongly support this project,” Cobb wrote. “WIPP’s primary justification for this modification is increased control of ventilation airflow in the underground and the ability to perform multiple operations at once.”
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Most letters of opposition came from urban areas in northern New Mexico like Santa Fe or Albuquerque and from as far away as New York or Maryland.
In a letter of opposition from Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Executive Director Jay Coghlan argued the shaft was part of a broader effort to expand WIPP which should go before the public before the project is approved.
“We strongly oppose the ‘WIPP Forever’ plans that a new shaft would afford,” Coghlan wrote.
“Originally billed as a replacement exhaust shaft to help WIPP recover from the 2014 exploding drum event that shut down WIPP for three years, a proposed new shaft is now designed to increase WIPP’s capacity without full public disclosure.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: WIPP: Hearing planned for new utility shaft amid fears it could extend nuke waste disposal
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