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Our view: WIPP waste: On the road again

Posted: Wednesday, April 6, 2016 8:09 pm

The New Mexican

Call us crazy, but the notion of tons of weapons-grade plutonium being hauled cross-country more than 1,400 miles to Southern New Mexico has bad idea written all over it. Yet, it might be the nation’s best solution to the troublesome question of what to do with plutonium waste.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would ship more than 6 tons of weapons-grade plutonium from a national laboratory in South Carolina to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. (We can see the marketing campaign now: New Mexico True, the nation’s nuclear garbage dump.)

It’s not just the notion of 6 tons of weapons-grade plutonium (hijacking possibilities, anyone?) that bothers us. We know that WIPP is not as safe as it was billed to be. In fact, the plant remains shuttered because of a radiation leak two years ago and still hasn’t reopened. This also is a decision apparently being made for budgetary reasons. While everyone supports saving money, there’s no need to cut corners when it comes to nuclear safety.

But South Carolina wants the plutonium out, and it is fining the Department of Energy $1 million for each day it fails to remove the stuff from the Savannah River Site. The Department of Energy faces some $88 million in fines so far. Thus, there’s an impetus to remove the waste. An unfinished Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication at the South Carolina lab has proved a bust. It’s cost billions so far, but will take another $30 billion or so to complete.

New Mexico is the budget option, costing only $400 million a year to transport and store the plutonium. Before moving, plutonium will be blended with oxide at the Savannah River Site, then packed in storage containers before being trucked to WIPP. What could go wrong, right?

Gov. Susana Martinez didn’t seem to mind the notion, earlier urging Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to consider bringing new nuclear waste to the Carlsbad dump. Taking more trash, in her mind, helps Carlsbad “broaden their economic base.”

We’re not sure New Mexico should become the waste dump of the nation, although that ship likely sailed when WIPP was allowed to open. Already, WIPP has received 5 metric tons of surplus plutonium from the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado and from the Hanford Site in Washington. To Department of Energy folks, WIPP has proved it knows how to handle the waste. Still, we find it disheartening that our state’s economic fortunes lean so heavily on nuclear waste. Surely, the state offers more possibilities than serving as a dump.

Before any new burdens are added, however, New Mexicans need to be assured that WIPP is safe and secure. Our senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, must push to ensure that worker safety is taken into consideration. Ventilation is a problem at WIPP, and plutonium is carcinogenic when inhaled. We can’t start accepting more waste at WIPP until there is proof that the place is safe for workers (and that waste is being packed properly so no more leaks occur). Because eventually, the waste stream will start flowing again. New Mexico’s priority isn’t waste from South Carolina — citizens here would like to see the waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory moving again. Moving waste out of LANL before fire season begins seems like a smart priority.

Even some of the nation’s fiercest nuclear critics are conceding that the Department of Energy has few choices when it comes to storing waste, however. Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, told reporter Rebecca Moss that, “It’s simple, it’s cheap and I think this is real cleanup. After decades of not really having a pathway for surplus plutonium, I think we have to bite the bullet.”

The bigger issue, as Mello points out, is the nation’s capacity to keep making nuclear waste. What will we do with tons and tons of the waste, waste we don’t seem to mind making as the nuclear weapons program continues? Will it all end up at WIPP? Should it? In the meantime, watch for trucks heading back to Carlsbad sometime next year. The nation’s nuke dump will be up and running again.


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