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First waste at WIPP, but problem not solved

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(April 9, 1999) As mentioned in the last issue, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant got permission to receive its first shipment of waste. Only a few days later the first truck (of the expected 37,000!) with waste from Los Alamos headed for the facility, surrounded by protests. It is said that WIPP would solve the military waste problem. But is it really?

(508.5001) WISE Amsterdam - When the nuclear debris reached its destination near Carlsbad, New Mexico, at about 4 a.m. on March 26, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson called it "a truly historic moment". The WIPP is the US Department of Energy's proposed deep geologic repository for nuclear weapons-generated transuranic waste (containing radioactive elements heavier than uranium, mostly plutonium). WIPP is being excavated in an ancient salt bed 655 meters below the ground. Still under construction, the WIPP will ultimately contain 24 square km of buried plutonium wastes, including up to 850,000 55-gallon drums (one US gallon is 3.853 liters) entombed in 56 rooms, each 100 meters long by 11 meters wide.

The WIPP site is surrounded by proven oil and gas reserves and potash deposits. Future mining and drilling operations could hit the waste rooms, releasing massive amounts of radioactivity to the surface. Other drilling operations, such as fluid injection, could cause radioactive releases at the WIPP even if the original operation is kept outside the site boundary.
Experts do not understand the groundwater system at the WIPP very well. The Rustler aquifer, which sits above the WIPP waste rooms has fractures and caverns in it that could transport waste, eventually contaminating drinking water supplies. Pressurized brine reservoirs under the WIPP site could bring wastes to the surface as well. These reservoirs contain large amounts of salt water under high pressure.

The DOE is seeking, but does not yet have, a hazardous waste permit from the state of New Mexico. The permit is required because the DOE will dispose of mixed transuranic wastes at the WIPP. These are wastes that are contaminated with both a chemical hazard (like a solvent) and a radioactive element such as plutonium. States can regulate DOE's hazardous (chemical) wastes. Therefore, the WIPP must have an operating permit. However, the DOE is the sole regulator for all the radioactive waste in the weapons complex. DOE is essentially forcing the premature opening of the WIPP by bringing in a shipment of "purely" radioactive waste from Los Alamos.

Never mind that this waste is from NASA activities, and that the WIPP is supposed to be for military wastes only. And never mind that significant controversy exists over whether the Los Alamos waste was classified properly. The DOE's aim was to get waste, any waste, into the WIPP and preempt the state's ability to impose limits through its permitting authority.

Moreover, the WIPP would not come close to solving the country's nuclear waste problems, not by any standard of measurement. The WIPP is designed to handle less than 2% of the existing volume of nuclear bomb-generated radioactive wastes. Even if one calculates the transuranic wastes alone, the WIPP is proposed for only about one-third of the DOE's existing TRU waste.

Yet, Secretary Richardson sent out a press release to say that the WIPP would safely clean up the nuclear weapons complex. So, what gives? Perhaps, the WIPP's main use is not for waste disposal, but rather for its public relations value. If the DOE can convince enough people that it has taken care of its waste problems, then current operational weapons facilities like Livermore Lab would face less pressure to cut down on the future production of nuclear wastes. Transuranic wastes would continue to be generated. And we will put them... where?


  • Citizen's Watch, Tri-Valley CAREs' April 1999 newsletter
  • Reuters, 27 March 1999

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