The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, is the world’s third deep geological repository (after closure of Germany’s Repository for radioactive waste Morsleben and the Schacht Asse II Salt Mine) licensed to permanently dispose of transuranic radioactive waste for 10,000 years that is left from the research and production of nuclear weapons. It is located approximately 26 miles (42 km) east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, in eastern Eddy County.
In order to address growing public unrest concerning construction of the WIPP, the New Mexico Environmental Evaluation Group (EEG) was created in 1978. This group, charged with overseeing the WIPP, verified statements, facts, and studies conducted and released by the DOE regarding the facility. The stewardship this group provided effectively lowered public fear and let the facility progress with little public opposition in comparison to similar facilities around the nation such as Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
The EEG, in addition to acting as a check for the government agencies overseeing the project, acted as a valuable advisor. In a 1981 drilling, pressurized brine was again discovered. The site was set to be abandoned when the EEG stepped in and suggested a series of tests on the brine and the surrounding area. These tests were conducted and the results showed that the brine deposit was relatively small and was isolated from other deposits. Drilling in the area was deemed safe due to these results. This saved the project valuable money and time by preventing a drastic relocation.
In 1979 Congress authorized construction of the facility. In addition to formal authorization, Congress redefined the level of waste to be stored in the WIPP from high temperature to transuranic, or low level, waste. Transuranic waste often consists of materials which have come in contact with radioactive substances such as plutonium and uranium. This often includes gloves, tools, rags, and assorted machinery often used in the production of nuclear fuel and weapons. Although much less potent than nuclear reactor byproducts, this waste still remains radioactive for approximately 24,000 years. This change in classification led to a decrease in safety parameters for the proposed facility, allowing construction to continue at a faster pace.
The first extensive testing of the facility was due to begin in 1988. The proposed testing procedures involved interring samples of low level waste in the newly constructed caverns. Various structural and environmental tests would then be performed on the facility to verify its integrity and to prove its ability to safely contain nuclear waste. Opposition from various external organizations delayed actual testing into the early 1990s. Attempts at testing were resumed in October 1991 with US Secretary of Energy James Watkins announcing that he would begin transportation of waste to the WIPP.
Despite apparent progress on the facility, construction still remained costly and complicated. Originally conceptualized in the 1970s as a warehouse for waste, the repository now had regulations similar to those of nuclear reactors. As of December 1991, the plant had been under construction for 20 years and was estimated to have cost over one billion dollars. At the time, WIPP officials reported over 28 different organizations claiming authority over operations of the facility.
In November 1991, a federal judge ruled that Congress must approve WIPP before any waste, even for testing purposes, was sent to the facility. This indefinitely delayed testing until Congress gave its approval. The 102nd United States Congress passed legislation allowing use of the WIPP. The House of Representatives approved the facility on October 6, 1992 and the Senate passed a bill allowing the opening of the facility on October 8 of the same year. The bill was met with much opposition in the Senate. Senator Richard H. Bryan fought the bill based on safety issues that concerned a similar facility located in Nevada, the state for which he was serving as senator. His efforts almost prevented the bill from passing. New Mexico senators Pete V. Domenici and Jeff Bingaman effectively reassured Senator Bryan that these issues would be addressed in the 103rd Congress. The final legislation provided safety standards requested by the House and an expedited timeline requested by the Senate.