New Mexico regulators approve well for nuclear waste landfill

CARLSBAD, NM (AP) – State environmental regulators have paved the way for further work on a multi-million dollar ventilation shaft in the federal government’s underground nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico.

Ventilation has been a problem since 2014, when radiation released contaminated parts of the pilot waste isolation plant and forced a costly shutdown for nearly three years, delayed the federal government’s cleanup program and resulted in policy changes at national laboratories and defense-related sites across the United States

The state Department of the Environment last week approved a permit amendment requested by the US Department of Energy to construct and use the service well. Temporary authorization had already been granted, but work was halted in November 2020 after state officials chose not to renew the authorization, citing an increase in COVID-19 infections among repository workers.

Estimated at around $ 100 million, the well will be a key part of the repository’s renovated ventilation system. With more airflow, officials said more employees can be in the underground space simultaneously working on mining operations and waste.

The project is expected to be completed in 2025 and would triple the available airflow, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported.

In the notice of approval, New Mexico Secretary of the Environment James Kenney said more airflow was needed for the depot to fulfill its mission.

Donavan Mager, spokesperson for Nuclear Waste Partnership – the contractor who manages the facility – said it was not clear when construction would resume.

Subcontractor Harrison Western-Shaft Sinkers was awarded a $ 75 million contract to construct the well in 2019. When complete, it will reach a depth of approximately 2,275 feet (693 meters) and include two access drifts. to connect the well to the rest of the underground WIPP.

The project drew strong criticism from environmental and government watchdogs who said it was part of a larger plan to expand the repository beyond its currently authorized mission, which allows for disposal. of 6.2 million cubic feet of waste. Officials said he would take action in Congress to increase the amount of waste allowed at WIPP.

The DOE is requesting a separate permit amendment to allow mining and the use of two additional disposal rooms to replace the space that was lost due to contamination in 2014.

Still, in public comments submitted to the state, opponents expressed concerns that the project could lead to further extensions of the facility.

“We oppose NMED’s refusal to explain the true purpose of the well in their required public notification documents,” wrote Virginia Necochea, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “In order to provide informed public comment, the public must be able to review the entire DOE plan.”

The project was supported by members of Carlsbad City Council, the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce and local business owners. They defended WIPP, a major employer in the community, and argued that the well was necessary to improve worker safety.

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