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Federal funds coming to New Mexico nuke waste site, national labs as bill passes Congress

Federal funds are headed to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad along with New Mexico’s two national laboratories via a bill that passed the U.S. House and Senate and was headed to President Joe Biden’s desk for signing into law.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is passed each year to fund defense-related projects throughout the U.S.

In New Mexico, this means disposing of transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant via burial in a salt deposit about 2,000 feet underground.

It almost means nuclear research and weapons development at Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, as the U.S. looks to modernize its arsenal and study new forms of energy.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), who worked to add New Mexico-based provisions in the bill said they would help support his state’s economy and position in the U.S. as a leader in scientific, defense research.

“These provisions, among many others, benefit New Mexico’s economy, and will advance our state’s position as a leader in national security for years to come,” Heinrich said upon the NDAA’s passage in the Senate.

Here’s how the NDAA will provide funds to WIPP and the two labs.

Nuclear waste site in need of more air

If enacted, the NDAA would provide full funding of $462 million to operate the WIPP site, including $59 million for an ongoing project to rebuild the facility’s underground ventilation system and $25 million continue work on an air intake shaft.

Underground workers at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant emplace waste for disposal, mine new areas to hold the materials and maintain the facility.

To do that, workers need air to breathe and WIPP operations were limited in recent years after a 2014 radiological release contaminated parts of the underground and led to a three-year closure of the site.

To increase available airflow, allowing more workers underground to perform tasks like waste emplacement and mining simultaneously, the facility was undergoing an overhaul of its ventilation system.

When complete, the project will more than double underground airflow from about 170,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm) to about 540,000 cfm.

Nuclear weapons production centered at New Mexico lab

The bill would add $1.6 billion to Los Alamos National Laboratory for its ongoing plutonium pit production and research programs, targeting a goal of 30 pits per year by 2026.

Plutonium pits are used as the triggers for nuclear weapons, and the project to ramp up their production was intended by the federal government to modernize its nuclear arsenal.

That funding will support personnel, equipment and other needs of the programs, including $767 million of plutonium operations and $588 million for pit production.

Another $286 million went to Los Alamos via the bill for environmental clean up efforts, along with $41 million for similar operations at the lab’s satellite locations.

Nuclear stockpile studies headed by Sandia National Laboratories

About $22.3 billion was provided in the NDAA to Albuquerque-based Sandia National Laboratories for its ongoing research programs and assessments of the U.S.’ nuclear stockpile and research through the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Another $3 million in the bill was provided to support Sandia’s projects to develop new modernized circuits for military weapons systems.