State lawmakers made clear Wednesday that they want to see more legacy nuclear waste removed from Los Alamos National Laboratory and less waste being shipped to New Mexico from out of state.
Most members of the legislative Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee echoed what’s becoming a common refrain within state government as they heard from waste disposal managers, regulators and activists.
Question-and-answer sessions followed updates about an existing underground nuclear disposal site and a planned repository for high-level radioactive waste from spent commercial fuel. Both are in the Carlsbad area.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which takes less radioactive transuranic waste, including from the lab, will see its original 25-year permit expire in 2024.
WIPP officials seek to have the permit renewed until at least 2080 and also want the permit modified to allow two panels — the chambers that entomb waste containers — to replace those that were shut down before they could be used.
One watchdog group told the committee that WIPP’s growth plans go far beyond replacement panels.
“I and the other people object to the WIPP expansion,” said Don Hancock, director of nuclear waste safety for the nonprofit Southwest Research and Information Center. “Recent activity has, in some cases, created additional concerns.”
Meanwhile, a representative of Holtec International, which aims to build disposal sites for high-level waste in southeastern New Mexico and West Texas, was grilled by committee members who echoed a chorus of opposition from the governor, congressional delegates, activists and some fossil fuel companies.
“This whole issue is a matter of respect,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces. “As a New Mexican, I’m very offended by the lack of real federal policy guiding this discussion.”
Carlsbad’s mayor and other area officials support the Holtec project, saying it will boost the regional economy. A consortium of local governments known as the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance is leasing 1,000 acres to Holtec for the underground site.
Still, Steinborn was among the lawmakers who argued that New Mexico doesn’t benefit economically or otherwise by becoming the country’s nuclear waste dumpsite — whether it’s Holtec collecting waste from nuclear plants or WIPP receiving out-of-state waste from Hanford and other national laboratories.
Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, asked whether it was possible to write language into WIPP’s permit that limits the facility to taking New Mexio’s waste.
A WIPP manager acted uncomfortable with the question but indicated it was unlikely.
A couple of lawmakers whose districts are in Southern New Mexico said WIPP’s longtime national mission can’t be narrowed to a state-based one.
Last week, WIPP received a total of 10 waste shipments — two from Los Alamos lab, two from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and six from Idaho National Laboratory, said Reinhard Knerr, manager of WIPP’s field office in Carlsbad.
Knerr said the goal is to make 17 weekly shipments to WIPP by 2023.
The facility is not expanding unless it increases the storage space beyond the 175,000 cubic meters established by Congress, Knerr said. WIPP is now at about 40 percent capacity, he said.
However, the 40 percent estimate is in dispute.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Energy persuaded the state Environment Department to change the calculation that measures the volume of waste stored at WIPP.
The state agency agreed to subtract the drums’ empty headspace from the space the drums took up in the salt caverns. The site went from being 60 percent full to 40 percent.
Critics contend that WIPP seeks to expand its capacity and lengthen its permit indefinitely to accommodate the waste that will be generated when plutonium triggers for warheads are made at the lab and Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
Most of the 50 shipments that officials hope to make from the lab are likely to contain new waste.
At the moment, the federal agency in charge of nuclear weapons is generating about 10 shipments of new waste through its research activities. Much of that is composed of protective gloves, clothing, tools and debris that’s contaminated.
Knerr said the processing of legacy waste was stalled after a drum emitted sparks several months ago. A federal safety report said the sparking occurred after HEPA filters containing titanium fragments oxidized within the drum.
As for Holtec’s plans for higher-level waste, a few lawmakers expressed concerns about how an underground repository in the Permian Basin could harm the oil and gas industry, one of the state’s largest revenue sources.
Ed Mayer, Holtec’s program director, said the waste canisters will be stored well above the depth where operators would conduct horizontal drilling.
“This facility does not affect oil and gas in any way,” Mayer said.
Leona Morgan, coordinator for the Nuclear Issues Study Group, said the Holtec project would disproportionately affect minorities, noting that about 65 percent of residents in Eddy and Lea counties identify as people of color.
That goes against New Mexico’s principles of environmental justice calling for people of all ethnicities and income levels to be treated equitably when it comes to potential exposure to toxins, Morgan said.
The state has a history of “nuclear colonialism” and “national sacrifice zones” in which minorities were treated as expendable, she said.
“We don’t need more of that here in New Mexico,” Morgan said.