The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for waste management from nuclear weapons production and operates the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) for permanent disposal of defense-generated transuranic waste (TRU), as authorized by Congress in 1979. Radioactive waste in the U.S. has historically been managed in one of two ways depending on its penetrating radiation dose rate. Waste with surface dose rates above 200 millirem/hour (0.002 sievert/hour) and waste that has been managed remotely (remote-handled). In 1992, Congress passed the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act, which created the regulatory framework under which DOE was to operate the facility, and authorized disposal of waste up to 1,000 rems/hour (10 Sievert/hour). Subsequently, DOE submitted applications to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), at the Federal level, for certification to operate WIPP, and to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), at the State level, for a hazardous waste permit. Both applications described the characterization methods that DOE proposed to use to ensure only compliant waste was shipped to WIPP. No distinction was employed in these methods concerning the surface dose rate from the waste. During the applications review, both regulatory agencies came to the conclusion in their approval that DOE had not demonstrated that remote-handled transuranic (RH-TRU) waste could be adequately characterized. Therefore, WIPP was only granted approval to begin waste disposal operations of waste with surface dose rates less than 200 millirem/hour (0.002 sievert/hour) — or contact-handled transuranic (CH-TRU) waste. Emplacement of CH-TRU waste in WIPP began March 26, 1999. However, WIPP was designed for disposal of both CH- and RH-TRU waste, with the RH-TRU waste in canisters emplaced in the walls of the underground disposal rooms and CH-TRU waste in containers in the associated open drifts. Therefore, as disposal rooms filled with CH-TRU waste, the space along the walls for RH-TRU waste disposal was lost. This made removal of the regulatory prohibition on RH-TRU waste a very high priority, and DOE immediately began an iterative process to change the two regulatory bases for RH-TRU waste disposal. These changes focused on how DOE could rely on CH-TRU characterization methods for adequate characterization of RH-TRU waste. On January 23, 2007, the first shipment of RH-TRU waste was finally received at WIPP. The revised EPA certification and NMED permit now both consider all waste characterization methods to be equally effective when applied to either CH- or RH-TRU waste, as DOE maintained in the original applications over 10 years ago.

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