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Date: Oct. 23, 1996
Contacts: Craig Hicks, Media Relations Officer
Mark Parsons, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; Internet <>

OCT. 23
Radiation from Proposed New Mexico Waste Site
Unlikely to Exceed U.S. Protection Standards

CARLSBAD, N.M. -- Human exposure to radiation from nuclear waste in a proposed underground disposal site in Southeastern New Mexico is unlikely to exceed U.S. and international radiation protection standards, concludes a report* released today by a committee of the National Research Council. Unless the site -- known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant or WIPP -- is breached by humans sometime in the future, there is no credible, probable mechanism for release of radioactive material into the surrounding environment.

"Scientific analyses indicate that the WIPP repository has the ability to isolate transuranic waste for more than 10,000 years, provided it remains undisturbed by human activity," said committee chair Charles Fairhurst, T.W. Bennett Professor of Mining Engineering and Rock Mechanics at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. "Also, there are ways to engineer the facility -- should studies now in progress indicate that they are worthwhile -- that could be used to reduce the chances of radioactive releases resulting from human intrusion."

Speculative scenarios of human intrusion should not be used as the sole or primary basis for judging the acceptability of the site, the committee said. The consequences of future drilling or activities at the site should be examined in order to assess ways to reduce its vulnerability, but predictions of what human activities and technologies will be thousands of years from now are highly conjectural and lack scientific foundation.

WIPP is a network of chambers and tunnels excavated in a layer of geologically stable salt more than 2,000 feet below the desert surface. If approved, the federally operated facility would be the nation's first permanent disposal site for transuranic waste, which comprises a variety of radioactive materials such as protective clothing, laboratory equipment, and machine parts that were used to manufacture nuclear weapons. This waste currently is stored in 55-gallon steel drums and wooden boxes at various sites across the nation.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has been investigating the suitability of WIPP as a transuranic waste repository since the 1970s and plans this month to ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for certification to open and operate the site. In order to get this certification, DOE first must demonstrate that the WIPP facility will comply with federal regulations intended to protect human health and the environment. The Research Council committee believes that DOE should be able to do this if some combination of the following were to occur:

> The projected risk of radiation releases caused by drilling would be much lower if EPA were to re-evaluate its assumption that the frequency of drilling for gas and oil in this area during the past century will continue unchanged for the next 10,000 years. Although drilling for natural gas and oil now occurs in the area surrounding the site, reserves of these resources will be practically exhausted in less than 100 years. While it is possible that drilling could occur for other resources which currently are uneconomical to recover or whose uses are not yet evident, the assumption that the drilling rate will stay the same is arbitrary, highly subjective, and scientifically untestable, the committee said.

> Laboratory and on-site research programs, both in progress and planned, could show that the potential is minimal for some radioactive elements to dissolve in salty ground water and migrate from the facility before they decay to low radiation levels that would not pose increased risk to humans.

> The consequences of drilling or other human intrusion at WIPP could be substantially reduced if DOE plans called for placing the waste in individually sealed rooms to prevent gas and fluid flow within the facility and/or for sealing the repository with a mixture of crushed salt and minerals having chemical characteristics that "trap" certain radioactive isotopes.

The committee's report is one of a series prepared by the Research Council since 1978 in response to a request from DOE for an independent review of scientific and technical issues related to designing, constructing, and operating a pilot plant for isolating radioactive wastes from the biosphere.

The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter.

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of <The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant: A Potential Solution for the Disposal of Transuranic Waste> for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).
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Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources
Board on Radioactive Waste Management

Committee on the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant