About EPA's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) Oversight
This page describes the history and legal authority behind EPA's role at WIPP.
On this page:
- EPA's Role at WIPP
- Final Radioactive Waste Disposal Standards
- Compliance Criteria for the WIPP
- The 1998 Certification Decision
- EPA's Recertification Decisions
- Other Regulatory Agents
EPA Response to 2014 Radioactive Release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)
EPA is in regular contact with DOE, the New Mexico Environment Department and the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center. To date, EPA’s review of the data collected indicates:
- That the radiation releases do not pose public health concern.
- That DOE followed the procedures previously approved by EPA.
- That the WIPP facility remains in compliance with EPA regulations.
October 7, 2014: EPA has completed the April 2014 WIPP Inspection Report and the WIPP Summary Report documenting EPA’s actions and findings related to the February 14th release at WIPP. EPA found that the release was largely contained within the WIPP underground and the release did not pose a public health or environmental hazard. The public doses were well below EPA’s standards. EPA identified a number of areas needing improvement regarding DOE’s ambient environmental air sampling network, laboratory procedures and incident response protocols.
- The detailed April 2014 inspection report can be found in Subpart A Inspection Report in Response to the February 14, 2014 WIPP Incident (PDF) (26 pg, 828KB, About PDF).
- The complete summary report can be found in the Summary of EPA’s Response and Findings Related to the February 2014 Radioactive Release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (PDF) (17 pg, 218KB, About PDF).
- U.S. Department of Energy, Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Recovery
- DOE has released its Phase I Accident Investigation Report and accompanying summary slides regarding the WIPP event. These can can be found at: http://www.wipp.energy.gov/wipprecovery/path_forward.html
- New Mexico Environment Department- Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Issue Page
- Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring & Research Center
- EPA Actions in Response to Release of Radioactive Material from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (PDF) (1 pg, 98 K, About PDF)
- See EPA's WIPP Response Photo Gallery
EPA's Role at WIPP
In the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) Land Withdrawal Act, Congress required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue final regulations regarding the disposal of spent nuclear fuel, high-level radioactive waste, 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. In addition, EPA must determine whether WIPP may be re-certified every five years until the facility is decommissioned. Finally, the WIPP LWA required EPA to determine that the WIPP complies with other federal environmental and public health and safety regulations, such as the Clean Air Act and the Solid Waste Disposal Act. You can find additional information on EPA's WIPP role on "EPA's Continuing Role."
The WIPP is the nation's first facility for deep geological disposal of transuranic radioactive waste (TRU). It has been developed by the U.S. Department of Energy in southeastern New Mexico, about 26 miles east of Carlsbad. Public Law 102-579, also called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Land Withdrawal Act (WIPP LWA) withdrew an area of 10,240 acres from public use in October 1992.
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 off-site 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 re-certification
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 re-certification decisions.
The 1998 Certification Decision
DOE submitted a Compliance Certification Application (CCA) to EPA on October 29, 1996, to demonstrate that the WIPP complies with the criteria at 40 CFR Part 194. After receiving the CCA, EPA published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register that announced receipt of the application and initiated a 120-day public comment period. Copies of the application were made available for public inspection at the Agency WIPP docket and the three supplemental New Mexico Dockets. Written comments were solicited, and public hearings were held in New Mexico in February 1997.
Over the next several months, EPA requested additional information from DOE related to the completeness and technical sufficiency of the CCA. EPA announced its finding that the CCA was complete in the Federal Register on May 22, 1997.
EPA published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register on October 30, 1997, announcing the proposed certification that the WIPP will comply with EPA's disposal standards. The proposed decision is accompanied by Compliance Application Review Documents (CARDs) that further explain the technical basis for EPA's decision and contain EPA's responses to comments received on the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.
The announcement of the proposal initiated a 120-day period in which the public commented on the Proposed Certification. During this comment period the Agency held public hearings in Carlsbad, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. EPA's Final Rulemaking Notice on the certification decision was announced on May 13, 1998. This decision is accompanied by a document that summarizes significant comments and issues regarding the proposal and provides EPA's responses.
EPA's Recertification Decisions
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 not a reconsideration of the decision to open WIPP, but 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.
Other Regulatory Agents
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 Region VI office, 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 also coordinates with the EPA Office of Solid Waste 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.
State of New Mexico
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.