The United States’ Department of Energy (DOE) is proposing to bring more "remote-handled" plutonium-contaminated waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant than will fit in the remaining designated space. Shielded containers at WIPP should allow more remote-handled waste that is dangerous to transport, store, and dispose. Despite what DOE says, shielded lead containers could not be handled like contact-handled waste because damaged or leaking containers could not be overpacked. It is another attempt by DOE to expand the mission of WIPP beyond its original purpose.
DOE has applied to the New Mexico Environment Department for a modification of the hazardous waste permit in order to dispose of "shielded containers" of remote-handled (RH) waste. The shielded containers, which have never been used before, are lead-lined in order to contain the high gamma emissions from the RH waste.
In 1999 when the Department of Energy opened the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), remote-handled (RH) plutonium-contaminated transuranic waste was prohibited. In 2007, the RH waste was allowed to be disposed with restrictions imposed by the New Mexico Environment Department. Even so, DOE has not shipped RH waste as rapidly as planned in order to use the available space drilled into the walls of the underground repository. Consequently about one-half of the planned RH space cannot be used because "contact-handled" waste was placed on the floors of the repository rooms. Contact-handled, or CH, waste has a surface dose limit of 200 millirems per hour, while RH waste can have a surface dose rate of up to 1,000 rems per hour. DOE plans to handle the RH shielded containers as if they were CH containers.
Because of DOE shipping and disposal practices over the past 12 years, the amount of underground space for RH waste at WIPP has been substantially reduced. DOE does not even know how much RH waste it has to bring to WIPP, when the waste would be ready to be shipped, or whether more than the remaining capacity is needed.
One additional issue is that DOE stated in its draft Greater-than-Class C waste environmental impact statement that it would use shielded containers to bring commercial waste, much of which is more radioactive than RH waste, to WIPP. Thus, DOE plans to use shielded containers could expand WIPP beyond its legal mission of disposal of up to 175,564 cubic meters of defense transuranic waste, the limit set by the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act of 1992.
DOE submitted the shielded container request as a class-2 permit modification, which allows for a 60-day public comment period. Within 30 days, which can be extended to 60 days, the Environment Department must approve, deny, or decide to use the more robust class-3 procedures.
Given the dangers of RH waste, the need for much more information, and public concern about RH waste, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS) and other non-governmental organizations are asking that the shielded containers be a class-3 modification request, which provides for more extensive public comment and an opportunity for a public hearing.