Investigation continues, WIPP’s future uncertain

CARLSBAD, N.M. (KRQE) – A recent string of concerning and potentially dangerous events, the first real blemishes in an otherwise spotless 15 years for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, has raised questions about the future direction of one of the country’s largest nuclear waste repositories.

Last week, U.S. Department of Energy officials confirmed 13 employees tested positive for low levels of radiation contamination. That disclosure followed news that a trace amount of radiation was released above ground at the WIPP site near Carlsbad on Feb. 14.

And earlier in February, an underground fire sent six workers to the hospital.

The events come at an inopportune time, when some experts are contemplating whether WIPP should expand its mission to accept higher levels of nuclear waste. Currently, the site only stores low-level nuclear waste, such as clothes and tools that have been exposed to radiation in the nation’s defense labs.

The waste is held in salt beds, deep underground, in rooms as large as football fields. Experts say the salt, left behind by seas that dried up hundreds of millions of years ago, is thick and impenetrable by water.

“We happen to have a very unique piece of geology here in the salt,” said John Heaton, a former Democratic state representative, who now chairs the Nuclear Opportunities Task Force. “An expansion (of WIPP) would be equally as beneficial. There’s no question.”

Heaton points to early research that shows salt beds could safely store waste with high-levels of radiation. He concedes, however, that more officials need to conduct more studies.

Federal funding to continue research on the salt beds near the WIPP site did not come through this year as hoped, Heaton said.

“This is an international problem, dealing with high-level waste and how we put it away forever,” he said. “We feel like we are really and truly providing a tremendous service to the country by doing this.”

Currently, high-level waste is stored at different DOE facilities, such as those in Hanford, Wa., and Savannah River, S.C. Federal officials planned to move much of the high-level waste to Yucca Mountain, a repository carved out of volcanic rock about 100 miles from Las Vegas, Nev. But officials in Nevada rejected the idea out of hand.

President Barack Obama established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in January 2010 to develop a long-term plan for how to manage the nation’s nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel. Among the group’s strategies was to find a community that embraced and accepted the idea of storing the dangerous material.

For Republican state Rep. Cathrynn Brown, the salt beds in New Mexico should be seriously considered.

“It solves a national problem, and I think we take pride that we’re already doing that,” Brown said. “We can do more in helping dispose of nuclear waste.”

WIPP supporters said the project has been a boon for economic development. Heaton said WIPP has consistently employed as many as 850 people since the plant opened.

“Those are very good jobs, so next to Los Alamos, we have probably more engineers and scientists in Carlsbad than any place in New Mexico,” Heaton said.

But consent must stretch further than just Carlsbad, and not everyone is sold on the idea.

“Its mission was start clean, stay clean, not ever have a release. Well, it’s failed in that mission,” said Don Hancock, Director of Nuclear Waste Safety Program and the Southwest Research and Information Center.

Hancock, who opposed WIPP’s initial opening, said talk of an expansion has distracted officials from their current mission.

“There’s a declining safety culture at WIPP. The fire and the radiation release are symptoms of this problem,” Hancock said.

And there’s another concern: Storing high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel would mean trucks loaded with the highly dangerous materials would travel through communities across New Mexico.

Hancock said it’s not worth the risk.

“WIPP should do its mission,” Hancock said. “WIPP is not for commercial waste. WIPP is not for spent fuel. WIPP is not for high level waste.”

Hancock also questions claims that New Mexico’s salt sites are stable enough to hold radioactive material.

“Within a mile of the WIPP site, there are more than 100 operating oil and gas wells. There are reserves of oil and gas directly underneath where the waste is at WIPP. That’s not what you would call stability for thousands of generations,” Hancock said.

Any change in WIPP’s mission would take an act of Congress.

Both of New Mexico’s Democratic senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, are opposed to storing high-level nuclear waste at WIPP.

“WIPP was never designed as a high-level facility, and I don’t think we should retrofit it to be a high-level facility,” Heinrich said. “It’s a good time to step back and figure out exactly what happened. I’m a big believer in making decisions based on data and science, and we don’t have all the information yet.”

Udall echoed that sentiment, and added “any attempt to alter WIPP’s mission would take many years of study, permitting, and (it would) require the state of New Mexico’s full support.”

There is one proposal to “extend” WIPP’s mission, instead of “expand” it.

Republican Rep. Steve Pearce, whose district includes WIPP, has introduced a bill that would allow the plant to accept more low-level waste from sources other than the Department of Defense.

“Congressman Pearce has introduced legislation to protect New Mexico jobs at WIPP, which has safely disposed of TRU waste for over a decade,” said Pearce spokesman Eric Layer.

When asked about the whether Rep. Pearce would support storage of high-level waste in New Mexico’s salt beds, Layer said “now is not the time to speculate about proposals that are not even on the table. Taking high level waste at WIPP is not on the table.”

New Mexico’s congressional delegation agree the current radiation investigation is the priority. They said any decisions on expansion will ultimately be up to the state of New Mexico.

The state’s environment department is taking a similar stance.

“Secretary Flynn has made it clear that NMED will be looking for more information on the cause of the February 14th incident and the appropriate remediation measures that will take place regarding the underground contamination before future actions are considered,” said department spokesman Jim Winchester.

The DOE will host a town hall meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 6, at the Walter Gerrells Performing Arts Center. Community members and interested stakeholders are invited. Media is also welcome, but questions will not be taken from reporters until a news conference call is held that same evening at 7:30 p.m.

Pearce will hold a town hall meeting Friday afternoon, March 7, in Carlsbad to listen to concerns local residents have regarding WIPP. According to a press release, federal, state and local officials have been invited to help answer questions. It will be held at the Leo Sweet Center at 4 p.m.

The U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board will hold a public meeting at the Marriott Hotel in Albuquerque  on March 19 to discuss research and development on using salt to dispose of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.

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