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"Forget the Rest" blog


Comments by Greg Mello on "Changing nuclear landscape alters WIPP’s role," published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Apr 9, 2016

Thanks to the New Mexican for tackling such a complex subject. There are one or two clarifications that should be made, and a comment on the subject as a whole.

The article incorrectly states that only "low-level transuranic waste" was originally allowed at WIPP. "Low-level" and "transuranic" (TRU) are two different, non-overlapping, waste families. Confusingly, "low-level" waste can be extremely radioactive. "Low-level" waste is defined as everything not in the other waste categories, no matter how radioactive or dangerous.

To be accepted at WIPP, TRU must meet legal requirements. Such waste can include and has included a wide variety of materials and waste forms, including concentrated residues and oxides provided they are sufficiently diluted -- not just "rags" etc.

The article also confusingly introduces spent commercial nuclear fuel storage in this context, as well as defense high-level waste. These are entirely different kinds of waste, far more dangerous for people and the environment than plutonium, generally speaking. No one is currently asking to dispose of these dangerous wastes at WIPP.

The important question raised is whether NNSA can make foreign plutonium legal for WIPP by accepting it into its "defense" mission, thereby cleansing it of foreignness and making it "U.S." Surely this sleight-of-hand circumvents WIPP's legal authorization. And since there are hundreds of metric tons of foreign plutonium needing a home, WIPP could be completely overwhelmed by even a fraction of this expanded (and growing) potential waste stream. NNSA may have opened itself to a legal challenge.

The article quotes Tobey at Harvard saying disposal via non-MOX pathways has not been thoroughly studied. That is hogwash. Some recent studies are available at

The news about Russia not supporting any disposition pathway besides MOX is important, at least temporarily. This administration has been attacking Russia intensely for over two years, and now this is one of the ways Russia has decided to strike back. MOX will bleed NNSA terribly until it is ended. As Putin is well aware, MOX competes with U.S. warhead funding.

Finally, why exactly does Santa Fe care so much about WIPP? After watching this odd obsession, which has zero public health content, for decades I and others have concluded that in substantial part it is a form of neurotic displacement. Talking about WIPP avoids talking about the far bigger, far closer, and far more dangerous (in many ways) problem that is LANL. Talking about waste means we don't have to talk about nuclear weapons, one of Santa Fe's biggest businesses. Do Santa Feans even know that LANL operates a nuclear waste dump larger than WIPP, that LANL buried what is now called TRU in shallow unlined pits and shafts in a number of places? That LANL continues to dump on site in shallow pits?

As for Tom Udall, he is more than ready to express his "concern," meaning the issue is grist for the appropriations mill. He is stating his readiness to bargain with DOE and NNSA for more appropriations for New Mexico. That's all his "concern" boils down to.

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