Waste: Oil and Gas Drilling Threaten Wipp Nuclear Waste Repository

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Extensive oil and gas drilling in southeastern New Mexico has scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) worried — for good reason. With the boom in hydraulic fracturing, hundreds of wells have been drilled within just 5 miles of the world's only operating underground nuclear waste repository known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or Wipp, and some of them lie along Wipp's borders. Drilling — particularly when it's followed by horizontal fracking — could lead to radioactive leakage from the underground installation, according to the EPA.

In order to assure the public that they won't find radioactive elements, or actinides, in their drinking water, the Department of Energy (DOE) must deliver a "performance assessment" every five years estimating cumulative releases of radionuclides to the "accessible environment" over 10,000 years. If these are found to be within EPA thresholds, the agency recertifies Wipp, as it recently did on May 3. This latest recertification may have been a close call. Not only does it follow accusations by a whistleblower that the Department of Energy's (DOE) performance assessment was based on "shoddy science," a recent EPA report warns that Wipp is vulnerable to oil and gas drilling.

"Drilling activity is one of the biggest risks for a release of nuclear waste material at Wipp if oil and gas drilling accidentally penetrates the repository," said the report, The Geochemistry of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, published in November.

The Wipp repository, near Carlsbad, New Mexico, lies some 660 meters underground in a salt deposit known as the Salado Formation. The rich hydrocarbon deposits within the Northern Delaware Basin (part of the Permian Basin) lie some 2,000 meters below the Salado. Above all of these formations are a series of geological strata containing groundwater. Salt formations have long been considered nearly ideal for radioactive waste because they are essentially impermeable. However, the Salado is "interbedded" with layers of more permeable mudstone and minerals, which basically provides an escape route for actinides in the event of their release from the "engineered barriers" within the manmade repository.

Wipp's transuranic wastes are derived primarily from weapons-related activities within the DOE's vast network of nuclear facilities, and include contaminated tools, rags, protective clothing, sludges, soil and other materials. Of the alpha-emitting wastes within Wipp which the EPA is most concerned with, "the longest-lived radionuclides throughout the repository’s life are Pu [plutonium], Am [americium], and Cm [curium], and these actinides, especially Pu, will dominate potential releases over 10,000 years," according to the 73-page EPA report. As they decay the composition of the actinides will change.

The Salado "is expected to encapsulate the waste" once the repository is closed, the report says, and while "actinides in the waste" could over time "be released from the repository through fractures" in the salt formation, "calculations show that the amount that potentially could reach the surface will be negligible."

However, that assessment comes with a big caveat — namely it assumes the formation will remain "undisturbed." In other words, the same can't be said for an intrusion that occurs as a result of hydraulic fracturing, an activity that in some nearby Permian Basin locations has been tied to earthquakes. The EPA report doesn’t mention seismic activity or earthquakes. However, it states that "When an intrusion through drilling occurs, multiple routes for a potential release are possible," including "long-term brine releases ... to the surface."

"Because of the advent of drilling techniques, including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, these 'unconventional' formations have received renewed attention and have been drilled extensively in recent years," said the EPA report.

Indeed. Within 5 miles of Wipp's outer boundaries, comprising roughly 16 square miles, there are 772 active wells and another 336 in the works, including many virtually adjacent to the boundary lines, according to the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance, which provided Energy Intelligence with a map of their locations as well as the locations of plugged and inactive wells.

The oil and gas analytics firm Envirus also provided data to Energy Intelligence on drilling activity so far this year. This includes six horizontal wells within a 5 mile radius of the site's center, which means they are right up on Wipp's boundary. "Extend out to 10 miles, you’re at 26 wells, 15 miles is 43 wells, 25 miles 207 wells and 50 miles encompasses [the] majority of the Northern Delaware Basin [which] had 365 wells completed so far in 2022," said Mark Chapman, senior vice president with OFS Intelligence, which is part of Envirus.

Oil and Gas Drilling Near Wipp*


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