ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – State officials on Tuesday released a draft permit that includes tougher provisions for the U.S. government to meet if it wants to continue dumping radioactive waste from decades of nuclear research and bomb-making in the New Mexico desert.
The public will have the next 60 days to comment on the proposal. Watchdog groups already have indicated their support for measures that include forcing the federal government to consider developing another waste repository elsewhere in the U.S. and reporting annually on those efforts.
Top state officials have accused the federal government of taking advantage of New Mexico over the decades. They are also concerned about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico having an unending lifespan.
State Sen. Jeff Steinborn, a Las Cruces Democrat who heads the Legislature's radioactive and hazardous materials committee, said the permit proposed by the New Mexico Environment Department puts definition and meaning into the state's agreement with the federal government for operating the underground repository.
“I think there’s this mentality that New Mexico can just be the forever home for all the nation’s waste. It’s an exploitative mentality regarding our state," he said in an interview. "And so it’s good to see our state setting boundaries.”
New Mexico wants to raise the bar by demanding federal officials produce a full accounting of materials still needing to be cleaned up and shipped to the repository from laboratories and defense-related sites around the country. The state also is putting Congress on notice that the permit would be revoked if lawmakers expand the type of waste accepted at WIPP.
Currently, the subterranean landfill carved out of an ancient salt formation is licensed to take transuranic waste, or waste generated by the nation’s nuclear weapons program that is contaminated with radioactive elements heavier than uranium. The drums and special boxes entombed there are packed with lab coats, rubber gloves, tools and other contaminated debris.
The U.S. Energy Department said in a statement that it looks forward to participating in the comment period.
The comment period will be followed by negotiations with the Department of Energy and a public hearing.
State officials and watchdog groups expect the Department of Energy to push back on several conditions, and it could take a year before a final permit is hashed out and approved.
Don Hancock with Southwest Research and Information Center said his group is concerned that limits on the volume of waste that can be disposed at WIPP will not be enforced and that the permit does not include a final end date for shipments.
Hancock said the state's proposed conditions can be strengthened. For example, the Department of Energy could include timelines and milestones in the report on efforts to develop another repository and make that information publicly available.
The permit negotiations follow Congress' approval last week of a defense bill that would clear the way for more money to be spent on making key plutonium components for the nation's nuclear arsenal. The waste resulting from new production would require disposal.
Democratic members of New Mexico's congressional delegation have supported expanding production at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the once-secret installation that helped with development of the atomic bomb. The mission has an escalating price tag and promises to bring jobs to the state.
While federal officials have described the project as essential for national security, critics have voiced their concerns about unchecked spending, the lab's history of safety violations and environmental consequences of ramped-up production.
Steinborn said he recognizes the economic benefits of facilities like Los Alamos and WIPP.
“And yet, at the same time, we should never sacrifice or be willing to look the other way or take the soft approach towards vigorously defending our public health or safety for any of these projects — or for that matter any industry in the state of New Mexico,” he said.
Steinborn noted that New Mexico also is grappling with contamination from past uranium mining, oil and gas development and the use of toxic firefighting chemicals known as PFAS at air force bases around the state.