Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)
WIPP is the nation's first facility for deep geological disposal of defense-related transuranictransuranicElements with atomic numbers higher than uranium (92). For example, plutonium and americium are transuranics. (TRU) radioactive waste. It was developed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in southeastern New Mexico, about 26 miles east of Carlsbad.
In The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) Land Withdrawal Act (LWA) (PDF) (7 pp, 159.32 K, About PDF), Congress required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue final regulations regarding the disposal of spent nuclear fuelspent nuclear fuelFuel that has been withdrawn from a nuclear reactor after use. It is still highly radioactive., high-level radioactive wastehigh-level radioactive wasteHighly radioactive materials produced as a byproduct inside nuclear reactors. Other highly radioactive materials can be designated as high-level waste, if they require permanent isolation. and transuranic waste. It also gave EPA the authority to develop the criteria that implement the final radioactive waste disposal standards specifically for the WIPP.
Every five years, EPA will conduct recertifications of WIPP's compliance with EPA's radioactive waste disposal standards. EPA will continue to regulate the WIPP until it closes. View certification and recertification information related to WIPP.
EPA Response to 2014 Radioactive Release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)
EPA is in regular contact with the U.S Department of Energy (DOE), the New Mexico Environment Department and the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center. To date, EPA’s review of the data collected indicates:
- The radiation releases do not pose public health concern.
- DOE followed the procedures previously approved by EPA.
- The WIPP facility remains in compliance with EPA regulations.
EPA has an oversight role at the WIPP to ensure that it continues to protect human health and the environment. The Office of Radiation and Indoor Air (ORIA) coordinates most of EPA's actions under the WIPP LWA. However, other EPA offices also play important roles in the regulation of WIPP. EPA's based in Dallas, Texas, is responsible for determining the WIPP's compliance with all applicable environmental laws and regulations other than the radioactive waste disposal standards.
The Region VI office coordinates with the EPA Office of Land and Emergency Management on hazardous waste issues. Some transuranic radioactive waste intended for disposal at the WIPP also contains hazardous components, thus subjecting it to the regulations developed under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
In addition, the State of New Mexico is authorized by EPA to carry out the State's base RCRA and mixed waste programs in lieu of the equivalent Federal programs. New Mexico's Environment Department reviews permit applications for treatment, storage and disposal facilities for hazardous waste, under Subtitle C of RCRA.
Final radioactive waste disposal standards
On December 3, 1993, EPA issued final amendments to its radioactive waste disposal standards, which were initially promulgated in 1985 (40 CFR Part 191). The amendments address the individual and ground water protection requirements of the original standards, which had been remanded by the U.S. Court of Appeals. The other portions of the standards were not amended.
The individual protection requirements were amended to require disposal systems to be designed to limit the amount of radiation to which an individual can be exposed for 10,000 years, rather than for 1,000 years as was required in the original standard. The final ground water protection requirements were amended to require disposal systems to be designed so that, for 10,000 years after waste disposal, contamination in offsite underground sources of drinking water will not exceed the maximum contaminant level for radionuclides established by the EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Compliance Criteria for the WIPP
On February 9, 1996, EPA issued final compliance criteria (40 CFR Part 194) for the certification and recertification of the WIPP's compliance with the final radioactive waste disposal standards. The compliance criteria are divided into four subparts:
- Subpart A contains definitions of terms, references, and reporting requirements for DOE. It also describes EPA's authority to modify, suspend, or revoke certification or re-certification.
- Subpart B describes the procedure for submission of any compliance application, and specifies the content of applications.
- Subpart C consists of requirements that apply to activities undertaken to demonstrate compliance with EPA's disposal standards. General requirements pertain to quality assurance, the use of computer models to simulate the WIPP's performance, and other areas. Containment requirements limit releases of radionuclides to specified levels for 10,000 years after the facility accepts its final waste for disposal. Assurance requirements involve additional measures intended to provide confidence in the long-term containment of radioactive waste. Also, Subpart C implements requirements in the disposal standards for protecting individuals and ground water from exposure to radioactive contamination.
- Subpart D describes the process for public participation that EPA will follow for certification and recertification decisions.
EPA's oversight responsibilities include:
Conduct Audits or Inspections at the Waste Generator Sites Before Allowing Waste Shipment
Currently the waste destined for the WIPP is stored at waste sites across the United States. Before the waste can be transported to the WIPP, EPA requires that it be identified or "characterized" as transuranic waste (TRU) to be eligible for disposal at WIPP. Additionally, DOE is required to have in place a system of controls to measure and track important waste components, and to apply quality assurance (QA) measures to its waste identification activities. EPA must separately approve the QA programs and the waste characterization controls for generator sites.
EPA continues to conduct audits or inspections at waste generator sites to determine if DOE is properly tracking the waste and to ensure that it adheres to specified waste component limits. Notices announcing EPA audits or inspections to evaluate quality assurance and waste characterization programs at generator facilities will be published in the Federal Register. The public will have the opportunity to submit written comments on DOE's waste characterization and quality assurance program plans, and on other documents in EPA's docket.
EPA must confirm that the waste placed in the WIPP falls within waste limits assumed during the analysis of the performance of the WIPP. The waste limits are fixed and may only be changed through a modification to the certification. DOE would have to show that the WIPP complies with EPA's containment requirements before any new limits could be established. View WIPP Audit and Inspection documents.
Conduct Inspections at the WIPP
EPA may conduct inspections of activities at the WIPP and at other WIPP-related facilities (laboratories, waste generator sites, etc.) to verify continued compliance with EPA's radioactive waste disposal standards. EPA may conduct periodic inspections, both announced and unannounced, and also may inspect any relevant records kept by DOE.
EPA uses its inspection authority to confirm that DOE is fulfilling all of its commitments related to WIPP. EPA has the authority to shut down the facility if it finds that significant commitments are not being fulfilled (either through independent Agency inspections or required DOE reports).
Certification and Recertification of Operation
EPA's decisions to certify or recertify that the Department of Energy has met EPA's criteria for opening and continuing to operate the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant are explained and supported by a number of legal documents. EPA is required by law to evaluate all changes in conditions or activities at WIPP every five years to determine if the facility continues to comply with EPA’s disposal regulations. The Agency has undergone two of these “recertification” processes—initially in 2004 and again in 2009—which included a review of all of the changes made at the WIPP facility since the original 1998 EPA certification. Recertification is a process to reaffirm that WIPP meets all requirements of the disposal regulations. The recertification process is not used to approve any new significant changes proposed by DOE; any such proposals will be addressed separately by EPA. Recertification ensures that WIPP’s continued compliance is demonstrated using the most accurate, up-to-date information available. View WIPP certification and recertification documents.
A docket is a publicly accessible collection of documents that federal agencies use in making regulatory decisions. As EPA reviews information, including public input relevant to WIPP's safety, it is placed in EPA's official docket in Washington, DC and in informational dockets in Carlsbad, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. EPA will consider public input as it makes subsequent decisions regarding recertification, approval of waste generator sites for shipment, and any decision to modify, suspend or revoke certification.
EPA maintains three dockets for WIPP:
- Docket A-92-56 contains information about the compliance criteria. (Contact us for more information about this docket.)
- Docket A-93-02 contains information considered in making the WIPP certification decision.
- Docket A-98-49 contains new information that EPA is reviewing to determine whether the certification should be modified, suspended, or revoked.
There are several options for reviewing or obtaining copies of docket materials:
Visit a WIPP docket location
EPA has established WIPP dockets at four locations - three informational docket sites in New Mexico and the official docket at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. They are open to the public and you can review and copy documents at all locations (check with the individual docket locations about copying arrangements). The official docket in Washington, DC will photocopy and send copies of materials to you upon request. The cost for this service will depend on the amount of material you request (small requests are generally free).
Selected docket materials are also available online at https://www.regulations.gov.
If you have any questions regarding the WIPP Dockets, call Ray Lee, Docket Coordinator at (202) 343-9463.
|Official EPA Air and Radiation Docket||Hours of Operation||Contact Information|
Air and Radiation Docket and Information Center
Air and Radiation Docket
(except federal holidays)
Phone: (202) 566-1742
|Informational Dockets||Hours of Operation||Contact Information|
|Hours vary by semester||Phone: (505) 277-9100|
|Hours vary by semester||Phone: (505) 473-6576|
|Phone: (505) 885-6776|
EPA Region VI Office
Based in Dallas, the Region VI office oversees EPA programs in Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
WIPP Pecos Management Reports
Pecos Management Services, Inc. (PECOS) has conducted independent oversight of WIPP through a dedicated and focused project entitled Independent Scientific Oversight of TRU Waste Operations (ISO-2). The scope of the ISO-2 Project is to conduct current and future independent reviews and evaluations of the design, construction, and operations of WIPP as they relate to the protection of the public health and safety and the environment.
State of New Mexico: WIPP Transportation Safety Program
Bill Mackie (505) 827-5950
Coordinator of New Mexico's
Radioactive Waste Task Force
State of New Mexico
WIPP Facility TRU Waste Transportation
Dennis Hurtt (505) 234-7327
U.S. Department of Energy
Office of Public Affairs
U.S. DOT: Federal Motor Carrier Safety
Richard Swedberg (303) 969-6744 x 0363
U.S. Department of Transportation
Western Governors' Association: WIPP Transportation Web Site
Ron Ross (303) 623-9378
Western Governors' Association