State regulators on Friday approved several permit changes that would affect the location of monitoring stations and air flow requirements for the ventilation system at the federal government’s troubled nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico.
But government watchdog groups are concerned the changes will weaken protections for workers at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
Officials with the New Mexico Environment Department confirmed their decision late Friday, bumping up against a deadline for ruling on proposals that were first presented last fall by the U.S. Department of Energy and the contractor that manages the plant.
The DOE and the contractor have been working for nearly two years to recover from a radiation leak that contaminated the underground facility and forced its indefinite closure. They argued that it was difficult to sample the air underground for volatile organic compounds due to the contamination and sought approval from the state to move the air monitors above ground.
They also sought to eliminate required flow rates for the plant’s ventilation system given that the radiation release forced flows to be drastically reduced so the air could be filtered.
State officials said Friday this is only one of many permit modifications that would have to be considered before operations resume and that regulators made their own modifications to the proposals before signing off. They declined to identify what those changes were.
Watchdog Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque told The Associated Press he was disappointed that the state seemingly rubber-stamped the proposals.
Hancock pointed to numerous permit violations by the contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, that were outlined by the state along with tens of millions of dollars in fines following the February 2014 radiation leak.
A settlement resolving those violations has yet to be signed, and that history should have been part of the state’s consideration, he said.
“WIPP can no longer fulfill the “Start Clean, Stay Clean” principle that is part of its essential mission, the basis for public trust, and a fundamental operating basis for the permit,” Hancock said in comments submitted to the state. “Weakening permit requirements will make it even more likely that additional ‘events’ will occur.”
Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and other groups also opposed the changes. They said underground monitoring for various chemicals had been part of the permit for years and it was this monitoring that resulted in increased worker protections following the detection of exposures in 2009.
Katie Roberts, head of the Environment Department’s Resource Protection Division, dismissed critics’ concerns about weakening protections.
“I can tell you as the lead regulatory agency for this facility, it’s our job to be protective of human health and the environment, and the changes that WIPP has proposed but also the modifications that the department has added are actually going to strengthen that sampling and monitoring program.”
Roberts said it made more sense to move the monitors so real-time measurements could be taken at the point where someone could potentially be exposed.
The changes also were backed by Carlsbad city officials and local business leaders.