This is a fact sheet that I wrote mid-2002 about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. After reading E2 FAQ: What should I node?, I decided that I would take the plunge and use the professional route and node this little thing. Yes, right now, I work for one of those think tanks where people sit around and read government documents and try to make them clearer to the general public.
A lot of people, when they think about nuke waste, think about things like The Simpsons or Godzilla or the Swamp Thing (actually the Swamp Thing wasn't created by a nuclear waste accident, but you get the point). Well, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the real deal. It is the only dump site in the United States that takes anything above low-level nuclear waste. Here's a little more information about it:
What is WIPP?
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the only operating deep underground radioactive waste dump in the world. It is located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico. The purpose of WIPP, as purported by the Department of Energy (DOE), is to "clean up" the waste generated by decades of nuclear weapons research and production. In its attempt at "environmental restoration" DOE is shipping transuranic (TRU) wastes from the numerous generating sites (which are currently storing the waste) to WIPP for disposal. The total amount of TRU wastes that are to be removed from the nuclear weapons complex and shipped to WIPP is less than two per cent of the existing weapons wastes. Once the WIPP project is closed in 2034, and if no other dumps such as WIPP are opened, over 98% of the wastes are to be left at the generating sites throughout the complex. Moreover, this is without factoring in newly generated waste, such as the TRU waste being generated at the Los Alamos National Laboratory's (LANL's) plutonium pit production facility for nuclear weapons. In other words, few sites will be truly cleaned up and closed, while a number of DOE sites will be expanded for increased nuclear weapons research and production. Specifically to the state of New Mexico, in the past DOE has stated that LANL's pit production facility would be its only generating source of TRU waste in the future.
The WIPP site is massive. There are a number of above ground buildings that perform activities ranging from simple offices to the unloading of waste from transport trucks. However, the above ground facilities of WIPP are not near half the story. The TRU wastes that WIPP receives are taken off the trucks to an elevator and delivered 2,150 feet below the surface to the disposal areas which have been mined in a salt bed called the Salado Formation.
These disposal areas consist of panels and rooms. Each panel has seven rooms; each room is approximately the size of a football field. Currently only Panels 1 and 2 have been mined. Panels 3-8 will be mined as needed; however no one is certain as to what they may find when they do mine those panels. It is in the rooms themselves that the waste is disposed. As it stands now the only type of waste that is accepted at WIPP is Contact Handled Transuranic Waste (CH-TRU).
A Very Brief History of WIPP
WIPP has been under study since the mid-1970s. Construction of the WIPP site started in January 1981, and in November of that year DOE struck a large brine reservoir one mile north of the center of the site. In 1991 a lawsuit was filed by then New Mexico Attorney General Tom Udall, which succeeded in greatly delaying the opening of WIPP. On May 13, 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certified WIPP for the emplacement of CH-TRU waste. The EPA certification was not final until June 28, 1999, when the federal D.C. Circuit Court upheld it against challenges by citizen groups.
On May 15, 1998, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) issued its draft Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) permit for WIPP and opened a 90-day public comment period. A permit was not officially issued until October 27, 1999.
Although DOE repeatedly promised that it would never send waste to WIPP until a NMED permit was granted, the facility received its first shipment of wastes on March 26, 1999, from LANL. On April 28, 1999, WIPP accepted its first out-of-state shipment from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). In total, DOE rushed 44 shipments of TRU waste to WIPP before the NMED was able to issue its permit. DOE argued that all of these shipments were "purely" radioactive with no hazardous constituents, hence not subject to state regulation. The NMED was never able to fully verify this.
At present, out of 27 large and small quantity sites, only five are shipping TRU wastes to WIPP. These are the Hanford Site in Washington State, INEEL, LANL, the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site near Denver (the former plutonium pit production site), and the Savannah River Site near Aiken, SC. Out of these five, only Rocky Flats and INEEL are sending waste to WIPP on a regular basis, and both of these sites have had major problems that have delayed shipments on several occasions.
To bring into perspective the fact that only two sites are now regularly shipping TRU wastes, the WIPP facility cost US taxpayers approximately three billion dollars to build. WIPP's current (FY2002) budget is $192,670,000 (thats $16,055,833/month) and last fiscal year budget was $190,886,000 (thats $15,907,167/month). All this money has been and will be spent on into the future to cleanup less than two per cent of the radioactive wastes in the nuclear weapons complex.
Why is WIPP Important?
Being the first, and so far only, deep underground radioactive waste dump in the United States, WIPP sets the precedent for the future of radioactive waste cleanup. DOE touts WIPP as its "cleanup" solution, and anything that positively or negatively affects WIPP will no doubt impact any future plans that the DOE has for its legacy radioactive wastes. So far, little of WIPP has been positive. At the same time DOE explicitly plans on leaving the supermajority of its wastes buried in shallow pits and trenches throughout the country with little or no treatment.
In addition to the precedent that the WIPP sets, TRU wastes and hazardous wastes are dangerous. Health and environmental issues are the major concerns, as there are very few places in the world that have both hazardous and radioactive wastes in the same dump site. DOE has made a presumptious decision by claiming that the WIPP site will be safe for 10,000 years. There is no credible science in the world that can make a claim of that length of time. There are fundamental faults with the sites location itself. One prime example was discovered in 1981 when DOE struck a large brine reservoir while mining for WIPP. The use of a salt formation to bury dangerous TRU wastes is claimed by DOE to be a virtue because of salt's self-mending qualities (i.e., if a crack forms the salt will fill and seal itself), as well as the concept that the salt will eventually seal the buried wastes into the mine. DOE also claims that there there is little chance that water will be found in a salt formation. This claim clearly does not hold up or it would never have accidentally discovered a brine reservoir. Additionally, plutonium-239 (the key material used in nuclear weapons production and the major source of TRU waste) has a half-life of 24,000 years and remains dangerous for some 100,000 years.
In WIPP's brief history so far "mishaps" have occurred time and time again. And accidents will continue to happen; there is simply no way to avoid it. Furthermore, the WIPP site itself is not structurally safe. Panel 1, the panel that DOE is currently filling with TRU wastes, is over twelve years old. It was mined during 1986-1988 with the intent that WIPP would open in the late 1980's or early 90's. Independent experts have testified that the ceilings of these rooms could collapse at any given time, and that the rooms were only safe for five years after they had been mined. DOE, however, continues to maintain that these rooms will hold together for as long as they need them to. Another issue at stake is the fact that the TRU waste generating sites continue to be in non-compliance with waste characterization procedures. The most recent example of this was when INEEL used non-certified equipment to characterize waste destined for WIPP. The DOE itself did not realize that the wastes sent to WIPP had been inappropriately characterized, nor did they notify the relevant regulating agencies when it finally did find out. This improper characterization (i.e., not necessarily knowing what the wastes are) is not only potentially threatening to the WIPP site itself. It is also potentially dangerous to the unknowing workers who are handling these wastes.
The simple concern of this matter is how WIPP is going to affect the environment in the short and long-term. This includes the people, wildlife, transportation routes, and the ecology around this site. The answer to these concerns is that no one really knows because we are dealing with materials that will remain dangerous for a period of time far longer than recorded human history.
National TRU Waste Management Plan, DOE/NTP96-1204, Revision 2, December 2000
1996 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, DOE.
Site by Site Breakdown of WIPP Shipments 11.14.01, Southwest Research and Information Center; web site http://www.sric.org
Why Salt Was Selected As A Disposal Medium, DOE; http://www.wipp.carlsbad.nm.us/fctshts/whysalt.pdf.
Characterization of Remote-Handled Transuranic Waste for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Interim Report, December 2001, National Academy of Sciences