in debate

Texas, New Mexico officials contemplate what to do with nuclear waste

Ten-year-old radioactive waste is currently being debated about by New Mexico officials. Photo via Getty Images

Federal officials gathered Tuesday in southern New Mexico to mark the 25th anniversary of the nation’s only underground repository for radioactive waste resulting from decades of nuclear research and bomb making.

Carved out of an ancient salt formation about half a mile (800 meters) deep, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad has taken in around 13,850 shipments from more than a dozen national laboratories and other sites since 1999.

The anniversary comes as New Mexico raises concerns about the federal government’s plans for repackaging and shipping to WIPP a collection of drums filled with the same kind of materials that prompted a radiation release at the repository in 2014.

That mishap contaminated parts of the underground facility and forced an expensive, nearly three-year closure. It also delayed the federal government’s multibillion-dollar cleanup program and prompted policy changes at labs and other sites across the U.S.

Meanwhile, dozens of boxes containing drums of nuclear waste that were packed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory to be stored at WIPP were rerouted to Texas, where they've remained ever since at an above-ground holding site.

After years of pressure from Texas environmental regulators, the U.S. Department of Energy announced last year that it would begin looking at ways to treat the waste so it could be safely transported and disposed of at WIPP.

But the New Mexico Environment Department is demanding more safety information, raising numerous concerns in letters to federal officials and the contractor that operates the New Mexico repository.

“Parking it in the desert of West Texas for 10 years and shipping it back does not constitute treatment,” New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney told The Associated Press in an interview. “So that’s my most substantive issue — that time does not treat hazardous waste. Treatment treats hazardous waste.”

The 2014 radiation release was caused by improper packaging of waste at Los Alamos. Investigators determined that a runaway chemical reaction inside one drum resulted from the mixing of nitrate salts with organic kitty litter that was meant to keep the interior of the drum dry.

Kenney said there was an understanding following the breach that drums containing the same materials had the potential to react. He questioned how that risk could have changed since the character and composition of the waste remains the same.

Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque were contracted by the DOE to study the issue. They published a report in November stating that the federal government's plan to repackage the waste with an insulating layer of air-filled glass micro-bubbles would offer “additional thermal protection."

The study also noted that ongoing monitoring suggests that the temperature of the drums is decreasing, indicating that the waste is becoming more stable.

DOE officials did not immediately answer questions about whether other methods were considered for changing the composition of the waste, or what guarantees the agency might offer for ensuring another thermal reaction doesn't happen inside one of the drums.

The timetable for moving the waste also wasn't immediately clear, as the plan would need approval from state and federal regulators.

Kenney said some of the state's concerns could have been addressed had the federal government consulted with New Mexico regulators before announcing its plans. The state in its letters pointed to requirements under the repository's permit and federal laws for handling radioactive and hazardous wastes.

Don Hancock, with the Albuquerque-based watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center, said shipments of the untreated waste also might not comply with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's certification for the containers that are used.

“This is a classic case of waste arriving somewhere and then being stranded — 10 years in the case of this waste,” Hancock said. “That’s a lesson for Texas, New Mexico, and any other state to be sure that waste is safe to ship before it’s allowed to be shipped.”

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A View From HETI

Governor Abbott said he was sending a letter to the Public Utility Commission of Texas requiring it to investigate why restoration has taken so long and what must be done to fix it. Photo via X/Governor Abbott

With around 270,000 homes and businesses still without power in the Houston area almost a week after Hurricane Beryl hit Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday said he's demanding an investigation into the response of the utility that serves the area as well as answers about its preparations for upcoming storms.

“Power companies along the Gulf Coast must be prepared to deal with hurricanes, to state the obvious,” Abbott said at his first news conference about Beryl since returning to the state from an economic development trip to Asia.

While CenterPoint Energy has restored power to about 2 million customers since the storm hit on July 8, the slow pace of recovery has put the utility, which provides electricity to the nation’s fourth-largest city, under mounting scrutiny over whether it was sufficiently prepared for the storm that left people without air conditioning in the searing summer heat.

Abbott said he was sending a letter to the Public Utility Commission of Texas requiring it to investigate why restoration has taken so long and what must be done to fix it. In the Houston area, Beryl toppled transmission lines, uprooted trees and snapped branches that crashed into power lines.

With months of hurricane season left, Abbott said he's giving CenterPoint until the end of the month to specify what it'll be doing to reduce or eliminate power outages in the event of another storm. He said that will include the company providing detailed plans to remove vegetation that still threatens power lines.

Abbott also said that CenterPoint didn't have “an adequate number of workers pre-staged" before the storm hit.

Following Abbott's news conference, CenterPoint said its top priority was “power to the remaining impacted customers as safely and quickly as possible,” adding that on Monday, the utility expects to have restored power to 90% of its customers. CenterPoint said it was committed to working with state and local leaders and to doing a “thorough review of our response.”

CenterPoint also said Sunday that it’s been “investing for years” to strengthen the area’s resilience to such storms.

The utility has defended its preparation for the storm and said that it has brought in about 12,000 additional workers from outside Houston. It has said it would have been unsafe to preposition those workers inside the predicted storm impact area before Beryl made landfall.

Brad Tutunjian, vice president for regulatory policy for CenterPoint Energy, said last week that the extensive damage to trees and power poles hampered the ability to restore power quickly.

A post Sunday on CenterPoint's website from its president and CEO, Jason Wells, said that over 2,100 utility poles were damaged during the storm and over 18,600 trees had to be removed from power lines, which impacted over 75% of the utility's distribution circuits.

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