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Radiation Protection

EPA’s Role at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)


View news, recent information and links to WIPP compliance and rulemaking activities.

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WIPP is the nation's first facility for deep geological disposal of defense-related transuranicHelptransuranicElements with atomic numbers higher than uranium (92). For example, plutonium and americium are transuranics. (TRU) radioactive waste. It was developed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in southeastern New Mexico, about 26 miles east of Carlsbad.

In The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) Land Withdrawal Act (LWA) (PDF) (7 pp, 159.32 K, About PDF), Congress required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue final regulations regarding the disposal of spent nuclear fuelHelpspent nuclear fuelFuel that has been withdrawn from a nuclear reactor after use. It is still highly radioactive., high-level radioactive wasteHelphigh-level radioactive wasteHighly radioactive materials produced as a byproduct inside nuclear reactors. Other highly radioactive materials can be designated as high-level waste, if they require permanent isolation. 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. 

External view of the WIPP facilityEvery five years, EPA will conduct recertifications of WIPP's compliance with EPA's radioactive waste disposal standards. EPA will continue to regulate the WIPP until it closes. View certification and recertification information related to WIPP.

Finally, the WIPP LWA required EPA to determine whether 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.

Learn about the 2014 radiological event at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

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EPA’s Oversight Role

EPA has an oversight role at the WIPP to ensure that it continues to protect human health and the environment. 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 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  coordinates with the EPA Office of Land and Emergency Management 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 (RCRA).

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.

EPA's oversight responsibilities include:

Conduct Audits or Inspections at the Waste Generator Sites Before Allowing Waste Shipment

Currently the waste destined for the WIPP is stored at waste sites across the United States. Before the waste can be transported to the WIPP, EPA requires that it be identified or "characterized" as transuranic waste (TRU) to be eligible for disposal at WIPP. Additionally, DOE is required to have in place a system of controls to measure and track important waste components, and to apply quality assurance (QA) measures to its waste identification activities. EPA must separately approve the QA programs and the waste characterization controls for generator sites.

EPA continues to conduct audits or inspections at waste generator sites to determine if DOE is properly tracking the waste and to ensure that it adheres to specified waste component limits. Notices announcing EPA audits or inspections to evaluate quality assurance and waste characterization programs at generator facilities will be published in the Federal Register. The public will have the opportunity to submit written comments on DOE's waste characterization and quality assurance program plans, and on other documents in EPA's docket.

EPA must confirm that the waste placed in the WIPP falls within waste limits assumed during the analysis of the performance of the WIPP. The waste limits are fixed and may only be changed through a modification to the certification. DOE would have to show that the WIPP complies with EPA's containment requirements before any new limits could be established. View WIPP Audit and Inspection documents.

Certification and Recertification of Operation

EPA's decisions to certify or recertify that the Department of Energy has met EPA's criteria for opening and continuing to operate the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant are explained and supported by a number of legal documents. 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 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. View WIPP certification and recertification documents.

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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 offsite underground sources of drinking water will not exceed the maximum contaminant level for radionuclides established by the EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

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Compliance Criteria for the WIPP

On February 9, 1996, EPA issued final compliance criteria (40 CFR Part 194) for the certification and recertification 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 recertification decisions.

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WIPP Information