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New Mexico Environment Department calls for more federal oversight at Waste Isolate Pilot Plant

Susan Montoya Bryan
AP Photo

According to a report by the Carlsbad Current Argus, more federal oversight could be coming to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) located near Carlsbad, New Mexico, after the head of New Mexico’s Environment Department (NMED) called upon the government.


James Kenney, who is the Secretary of the Environment Department wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) asking them to increase oversight in the nuclear waste repository. 

The WIPP is owned and operated by the Department of Energy and it’s Office of Environmental Management, but it is the NMED that permits and regulates the operation.

Opened in March of 1999, the WIPP is the nation's only deep geologic long lived radioactive waste repository. Located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad and 2,150 feet below ground, an ancient salt formation houses defense-generated transuranic waste (TRU). 

TRU waste is produced primarily from recycling spent fuel or using plutonium from nuclear weapons. 

One of Kenney’s concerns stated in the letter sent to the GAO is the prioritization of waste shipments sent to the WIPP. 

Kelly states that New Mexico and more specifically Los Alamos National Laboratory, located in Northern New Mexico should be given first priority for space to store their waste. 

In his letter, Kenney writes that “the DOE EM has entered a legally binding settlement agreements with states to prioritize waste shipments to WIPP at the expense of shipments from other states, including New Mexico.”

Kenney goes on to say that “this is problematic for both the clean-up of legacy waste at Los Alamos National Labs and new waste from pit production at the Labs.”

The settlement agreements that DOE entered were also done without engaging first with the New Mexico stakeholders Kenney said. Bypassing the very group that would be bearing the impacts of moving out-of-state nuclear waste into New Mexico. 

Kenney points to this example as a need for more federal oversight to be employed, saying “The practice of the DOE EM solely managing waste shipments from WUPP from around the U.S without first discussing with the NM stakeholders - including NMED as its regulator – now merits immediate congressional oversight.”

In an emailed response sent to the Carlsbad Current Argus, the Department of Energy said the WIPP prioritizes their shipments based on their availability and certification under the federal Land Withdrawal Act.

“The Department of Energy (DOE) takes seriously its responsibility for safely cleaning up transuranic (TRU) waste generator sites in support of our country’s national defense mission. Shipments are prioritized according to the availability of certified TRU waste that meets the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) Waste Acceptance Criteria (WAC).”

The statement went on to say the DOE will continue transparency efforts while strongly encouraging community engagement.