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PR EPA PROPOSES SAFETY CERTIFICATION OF DOE PLAN TO DISPOSE OF RADIOACTIVE WASTE IN NEW MEXICO

Release Date: 10/23/97
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FOR RELEASE: THURSDAY, OCTOBER 23, 1997
EPA PROPOSES SAFETY CERTIFICATION OF
DOE PLAN TO DISPOSE OF RADIOACTIVE WASTE IN NEW MEXICO

As part of the Department Of Energy’s efforts to establish a safe disposal site for defense-related nuclear waste, EPA today proposed to certify that DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, N.M., meets standards that will protect public health and the environment. EPA’s proposal is based on DOE’s application, which has received extensive scientific analysis by the National Academy of Sciences, the International Atomic Energy Agency and other independent scientists. EPA now will seek broad public comment on the proposed decision from the general public and all stakeholders.
The WIPP is a DOE storage facility located thousands of feet underground, encased in a salt formation where waste would be contained within reinforced concrete walls. Congress authorized the development of the WIPP in 1979 to address the issue of safe, permanent disposal of defense-related radioactive waste that is currently stored at 40 sites throughout the nation.

As required by the 1992 WIPP Land Withdrawal Act, EPA has responsibility for safety oversight of DOE operations at the WIPP facility. DOE and Congress chose Carlsbad as the disposal site and DOE submitted its completed application to EPA for safety certification in May 1997. EPA’s role under the Act focuses on certifying the WIPP’s ability to safely contain long-lived transuranic radioactive waste (contaminated sludges, tools, rags, glassware, protective clothing) generated as a by-product of nuclear weapons production and destruction. EPA must, under the Act, make its final determination on the certification within one year of having received DOE’s application.

EPA is proposing that DOE must meet the following conditions on the certification:

o DOE must -- in advance of shipment to the WIPP -- demonstrate to EPA that its personnel can accurately characterize the contents of waste containers at generating sites.

o DOE must seal waste storage at the WIPP with reinforced concrete barriers to reduce the movement of hazardous gases, and to prevent release of radioactive material from the site.

o DOE must report to EPA any changes in activities or conditions at the WIPP that might violate the safety requirements in the original EPA- approved plan.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are responsible for assuring the safe transport of the waste from generating facilities to the WIPP.

Public hearings on EPA’s proposed decision will be held in Carlsbad, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, N.M., to receive additional input from the public. All comments will be considered before the Agency publishes its final decision. If, after reviewing public comments, EPA concludes that the WIPP will comply with waste disposal requirements, EPA will issue a final certification of compliance to the Secretary of Energy. Once all other applicable federal, state and local health and safety standards have been satisfied, DOE would then be authorized by Congress to begin allowing shipments of radioactive waste to Carlsbad.

A copy of EPA’s proposed decision on the certification of WIPP will appear in the Federal Register soon or on EPA’s World Wide Web site at: http://www.epa.gov/radiation/wipp. For further technical information, contact Frank Marcinowski at 202-233-9290.

R-152 ###