Don Hancock., Southwest Research and Information Center

Air Dates: November 20-22, 2021

Nov. 18, 2021 – This week's guest on REPORT FROM SANTA FE is Don Hancock, Director, Nuclear Waste Program, Southwest Research and Information Center, discussing the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southeastern New Mexico, its history, and the development of a new mission for the facility.

In this interview about such complex subjects, Don Hancock provides scientific sources for information about WIPP and its new mission, as well as references to solid scientific reports, such as the National Academy of Sciences 200-page report on “Disposal of Surplus Plutonium in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.”

Hancock suggests that New Mexico use its consultation and cooperation rights, which require the Department of Energy to provide the state and the public with information about what it is going to do, before it makes major changes to WIPP, so that the state and the public have the right to participate. New Mexico also has authority to issue a permit for WIPP under the state’s hazardous waste act, which would decree how long WIPP will operate and what materials can be put underground at WIPP.

WIPP is the nation's only deep geologic long-lived radioactive waste repository. Located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico, WIPP permanently isolates defense-generated transuranic (TRU) waste 2,150 feet underground in an ancient salt formation. Transuranic waste to be disposed of at the WIPP comes from the department’s nuclear weapons programs. This waste consists primarily of clothing, tools, rags, debris, residues and other non-liquid disposable items contaminated with trace amounts of radioisotopes.

The Energy Department (DOE) issued a notice of intent in December 2020 to begin the process for an environmental impact statement as one of the first steps toward diluting and disposing of plutonium left over from the Cold War. As the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report points out, the proposed disposal of 48.2 metric tons of diluted plutonium substantially changes the mission of WIPP.

Also, as the NAS discusses, this change in WIPP’s mission significantly changes the WIPP "social contract" with the state of New Mexico. NM elected officials and regulatory agencies must ensure that all WIPP safety issues are properly addressed and enforceable in a revised social contract.

These proposed plutonium shipments include plans to truck plutonium shipments through New Mexico, including Santa Fe’s southern edge, and are deeply concerning to New Mexico lawmakers. The shipments would travel through a dozen states and cover 3,000 miles. The issue of such a drastic change in mission for WIPP does represent fundamental exposure to citizens of the state, and citizens have a right to know exactly what the new plan is for WIPP.