Federal agencies want to extend nuclear waste site to 2080 via Santa Fe/New Mexican

By Scott Wyland


The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s permit is set to expire in 2024, but federal officials who oversee the nation’s nuclear programs believe the underground repository near Carlsbad can keep taking radioactive waste for decades to come.

Critics contend WIPP, where the waste is buried in salt beds 2,150 feet underground, should not operate beyond the 25-year life that was planned when it opened in 1999.

They also argue WIPP is fast approaching its limit, and alternative disposal sites should be created outside New Mexico.


WIPP receives radioactive material from sources as varied as the decommissioned Hanford Site in Washington state and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The Los Alamos lab’s legacy waste generated during the Cold War and Manhattan Project is sent to WIPP. If the lab and Savannah River Site in South Carolina ramp up nuclear-core production as planned by 2030, the new waste will go to WIPP.


The plan poses challenges, such as how to efficiently dilute the plutonium and how much storage space WIPP would have for the material, the National Academy of Sciences said in a 2018 report.

The 1992 Land Withdrawal Act limits WIPP to 6.2 million cubic feet of waste, or about 175,000 cubic meters.

It also restricts the storage to transuranic waste — from elements that have atomic numbers higher than uranium in the periodic table, primarily produced from recycling spent fuel or using plutonium to fabricate nuclear weapons. Taking in discarded plutonium would require Congress to amend the law, Hancock said.


The contamination, which cost about $2 billion to clean up, led to part of WIPP being sealed off. Crews are having to dig out more space in the salt beds to put waste containers, Arends said, so its footprint is growing.

There are also environmental concerns about disposing of massive nuclear waste at WIPP, she said. For instance, the waste, while embedded in the salt beds, could leach into subterranean clay seams linked to the Pecos River.

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