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Former WIPP Project Leader Talks Permit Changes

DOE public domain via CC
The 10,000th shipment of transuranic waste bound for WIPP in 2011.

Congress decided in the ’90s how much nuclear waste could be deposited into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico. WIPP is the only place in the country this radioactive garbage can be stored permanently. But when the feds hit the limit, the facility is supposed to close.

Department of Energy officials came back last year and said they’d like to recalculate how much nuclear waste has already been stored at WIPP, and in the final days of Susana’s Martinez’ term as governor, she signed off on the DOE’s request.

On Thursday, Jan. 17, local watchdog groups appealed that decision, saying it would mean 30 percent more toxic waste buried in the desert.

KUNM spoke with Steve Zappe who was the permit writer and WIPP project leader with the state’s Environment Department for about 17 years before he retired.

STEVE ZAPPE: Ultimately, yes, it results in more waste being placed underground—more containers of waste. Think of putting a 1-gallon bucket of paint, but instead of a gallon bucket of paint, it’s a gallon bucket of highly enriched plutonium. You put that 1-gallon pail into a 55-gallon drum, and under the permit, it’s called 55 gallons of waste. Under DOE, they’re going to say, instead of one 55-gallon drum, we’re going to be able to put fifty-five 55-gallon drums with a 1-gallon pail in it. And that is exactly what they’re hoping to be able to do.

KUNM: There’s also concern that this permit change will open the door to allowing more kinds of waste—or more intensely radioactive waste—in the future. Is that something that’s on your radar as well?

ZAPPE: Generally, waste has to meet the definition of being transuranic waste. It has to be defense-related. And it cannot be high-level waste or spent nuclear fuel. Now there are moves afoot—and I’ve been aware of this for, gee, let me think, close to 15 years—of DOE wanting to reclassify some of their waste, treat it, package it, and ship it to WIPP.

Because there’s no place else to put this stuff, people are finding creative ways to redefine, or give it a different name, so it looks like and sounds like it should fit.

I believe it’s likely they’re going to approach that when they do a renewal in a couple of years, when the permit’s getting ready to expire.

KUNM: So you don’t think though that this permit change really opens the door for any of that necessarily. You think that’s just going to happen anyway.

ZAPPE: It’s probably the other way around. In other words, they needed this change in order to be able to consider these additional wastes.

KUNM: You have a lot of inside knowledge about this, having worked on the permit for the state. What do you think isn’t being seen or made public that matters?

ZAPPE: It seemed to be rushed. It seemed to be they had to get it done before the clock ran out on the Martinez administration. And that’s something painful for me to say, as a state employee. Because I worked through Bruce King, Gary Johnson, Bill Richardson, Susana Martinez. Four administrations. And I never saw something that we said “We have to get this done before this administration ends.”

It was like the Environment Department appeared to be rather willing to accept whatever DOE said in their documents as factual. And I pointed out numerous things that were not based on written documentation, or that were not as DOE had presented in their modification as being the complete truth. I think that their submittal was misleading and incomplete.

KUNM: What kind of impact do these decisions have on New Mexicans directly or indirectly?

ZAPPE: In a positive sense for Eddy and Lea Counties—and for people who are employed either directly or indirectly in support of WIPP—it will keep the facility open longer, and it will continue to be an economic engine for those areas. On the potentially negative side, you can argue that the state has kind of relinquished some of its authority by allowing DOE to do this stuff separately from the permit.

And it may embolden DOE to attempt further types of actions that may weaken or reduce the effectiveness of state oversight of disposal at WIPP. But that’s—I can’t think of anything specific—I just think DOE will come up with other creative proposals that benefit them and don’t necessarily benefit people in the state.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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