WASHINGTON -- After 24 years of construction and almost as much time in litigation, the world's first deep, underground nuclear waste storage site won a federal license Wednesday to begin operations, with deliveries of plutonium expected to begin on June 19.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, carved out of salt beds 2,150 feet below the desert near Carlsbad, N.M., would serve as the disposal site for hundreds of thousands of barrels of radioactive wastes from 55 years of nuclear weapons production at 23 sites around the country.
Energy Secretary Federico Pena formally notified Congress Wednesday that the Environmental Protection Agency had ruled favorably on the Energy Department's 100,000-page application to open the isolation plant.
The notification starts a 30-day waiting period that would allow Congress to keep the site closed, which is considered unlikely.
Opponents said Wednesday that they would argue that an injunction issued in 1991 still barred the plant from opening.
The goal for the repository -- Energy Department engineers consciously avoid the word "dump" -- is to keep the plutonium safely sealed away from the environment for 10,000 years, although the site is expected to remain sealed for much longer, since the bomb material will be dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.
James Owendoff, the acting assistant secretary of energy for environmental management, cheered the decision, calling it a milestone that would make space for hundreds of thousands of drums of waste now being stored above ground in containers that were "never meant to be a permanent solution."
The Carlsbad plant, Owendoff said, would put the waste "in the permanent isolation it requires."
The site is a salt formation that the Energy Department says has been stable for the last 250 million years. The department's engineers say that the salt formation has a tendency to shift, and that this geological pressure will seal cracks in the isolation site, locking the toxic wastes inside.
Richard Wilson, the acting assistant administrator at the Energy Department's office of air and radiation, said government engineers had spoken extensively with opponents and with independent scientists about whether the radioactive material could escape.
"We just haven't found a problem," Wilson said.
"The site's half a mile down, in salt, below all the groundwater, and what groundwater there is is salty and unlikely to be used as drinking water," he said. "It's about as good a site as you could find."
But opponents said the site is not safe, in part because of extensive oil and gas reserves in the area that attract drilling.
There are 200 wells within two miles of the plant, said Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program of the Southwest Research and Information Center, an environmental group in New Mexico.
Hancock warned that a well might be accidentally drilled directly into the repository, but he said that the waste -- sludge, contaminated tools, dirty clothes and plutonium in chemical solutions -- could be processed into a solid form less likely to spread.
In the early 1990s, the Energy Department was prepared to put 4,000 to 8,000 barrels of radioactive waste into the repository as a "test emplacement," but Hancock's group and others sued. In October 1991, Judge John Garrett Penn of the Federal District Court in the District of Columbia ruled that the plant could not open because the land belonged to the Interior Department, not the Energy Department.
Congress eventually voted to grant control of the land to the Energy Department, but Penn also said that the plant would need a hazardous waste permit for burying the chemical poisons -- but not for burying radioactive wastes -- as required under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
State environmental officials in New Mexico plan to release a draft of such a permit on Friday for public comment. Pending its approval, the Energy Department is planning to bury barrels that are only radioactive, with no chemical wastes.
But Hancock's group argues that the injunction is still in effect, and that if the plant was designed for hazardous wastes, it cannot open without a permit for hazardous wastes.
The Energy Department notified Hancock's group that it has requested a session with Penn, Hancock said Wednesday evening.
But a lawyer for the department, Cooper H. Wayman, said that the plant had all the approvals it needs to begin burying barrels that had only radioactive wastes in them, with no chemicals.
Some critics have been placated. For example, the salt contains pockets of water, which tend to migrate towards heat sources, like nuclear waste, where the water could form brine that would corrode the barrels. But in the last few years the Energy Department has decided to fill the empty spaces in the underground chambers with magnesium oxide, a chemical that will absorb water.
The annual budget for the isolation project is about $185 million. The first delivery of radioactive waste is expected on June 19 from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in California, and scientists say it will take 35 years to fill the facility.
The Carlsbad project is the smaller of the Energy Department's two giant waste projects; the other is at Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas, where the Department wants to bury a far larger -- and far more radioactive -- volume of used fuel from civilian reactors, as well as some military wastes. That project is also bogged down in technical and legal questions.
"Over the past 20 years there has been a consensus that we need a repository for this waste," Owendoff said. "Both the scientific community as well as the Congress believe we need this repository."
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