Appellate Court’s Decision on Waste Volume Could Keep Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Open to 2050

New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) could stay open until 2050 as a result of an appellate court’s decision that upheld how the volume of nuclear waste emplaced in the salt repository is counted.

Judges J. Miles Hanisee, Shammara Henderson and Kristina Bogardus issued a concurring opinion on Nov. 9 that upheld the state’s approval of a Department of Energy (DOE) request to modify its operating permit, the Carlsbad Current Argus reported.

DOE requested in 2018 a change in its operating permit to allow it to count the volume of nuclear waste itself instead of the volume of the waste drum. Doing so would mean the underground salt repository would be a third full instead of half full.

WIPP takes in transuranic waste—items like clothes, tools and debris that are contaminated with small amounts of radioactive elements like plutonium—from former nuclear weapons production sites like Idaho National Laboratory.

The state’s environment department approved DOE’s operating permit modification in 2019, but nuclear watchdog groups appealed the decision to the appellate court.

In rejecting the groups’ appeal, the judges said the modification decision was legal, and that it was incorrectly assumed that the waste drums would be full when the state approved the initial operating permit. They said this undercounting of waste created, in effect, a limit that would underutilize the WIPP facility.

“This is great news for our members,” said Local 12-9477 President Rick Fuentes of the appellate court’s decision. “Extending the life of the facility so it meets its statutory limit for transuranic waste storage will enable our members to have good, family-supporting jobs for years to come.”

Photo courtesy of DOE.

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