New Mexico’s nuclear waste repository has requested that the state approve changes to its permit that
will clear the way for it to reopen more than two years after it closed down due to fire and radiation
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad has asked the state Environment Department to sign off
on permit modifications having to do with ventilation in the underground repository and changes to its
contingency plans in the event of another emergency.
WIPP has spent the past two years trying to recover from two separate events in February 2014: a fire on
a salt haul truck and the bursting of a drum of nuclear waste that contaminated the underground facility
with radiation.Cleaning up the repository has been a unique challenge, given that WIPP’s enormous
waste disposal rooms are mined from ancient salt beds 2,150 feet below the surface.
WIPP is asking the Environment Department to drop a requirement in its hazardous waste facility permit
that requires waste disposal rooms to have a ventilation rate of at least 35,000 cubic feet of air per minute
when workers are present. WIPP is asking for the flexibility to implement its own safety measures when
the ventilation rate falls.
Ventilation has been a challenge ever since the radiation release contaminated a key exhaust shaft,
forcing the facility to run its air system in filtration mode, meaning far less air can be pulled in from the
surface and circulated underground than before. Ventilation rates are a seventh of what they were before
the 2014 incident.
Don Hancock, a longtime and frequent WIPP critic, said the ventilation requirement is meant to protect
workers from volatile organic compounds, or VOCs – colorless, odorless chemicals that can be harmful
when inhaled. VOCs are vented from drums of nuclear waste so they don’t cause potentially explosive
buildup; also, running diesel equipment underground produces VOCs in vehicle exhaust.
Under the modification requested, “The permit goes from having a strict regulatory requirement to
essentially having no real measure to determine whether it’s OK or not,” Hancock said. “They are
getting out of any ventilation requirements in the active disposal rooms, which means they are
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By Lauren Villagran / Journal Staff Writer – Las Cruces Bureau, Albuquerque Journal, Published: Sunday, July 17th, 2016 at 12:02am as posted at http://www.abqjournal.com/809287/wipp-seeks-permit-changes-ahead-of-reopening.html