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What’s Happening at WIPP? What Does It Mean for the Rest of Us?


By Beatrice Brailsford

Alliance WIPP Road Show Dates

Alliance WIPP Road Show Dates


Sites across the US Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear weapons complex have sent more than 11,890 shipments of plutonium waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, the only deep geologic repository in the country.

Far and away the largest shipper has been the Idaho National Laboratory. That’s because INL was the dumping ground for plutonium (or transuranic – TRU) waste from the Rocky Flats (CO) weapons plant, which meant the largest inventory of TRU waste ended up above the Snake River Aquifer. Before 1970, the waste was buried in unlined pits and trenches. After 1970, it was placed on a giant above-ground asphalt pad and covered with dirt. The Snake River Alliance has been among the strongest advocates of exhuming the buried waste because of the threat to Idaho’s drinking water.

Two synced documents mandate how much of both exhumed and never-buried waste leaves Idaho. The 1995 Settlement Agreement requires that 65,000 cubic meters of waste leave by 2018; the Superfund cleanup agreement between DOE, the State, and EPA requires that even more be removed by 2023. (Those two documents are further bolstered by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act [RCRA], which guides handling of hazardous waste at the Site.) Idaho’s Superfund cleanup agreement is not unlike a number of others across the DOE complex. The 1995 Settlement Agreement, on the other hand, is unique to Idaho, particularly because of its court-enforceable ban on commercial spent fuel shipments to Idaho. It has also helped train a political spotlight on the cleanup activities at INL.

Though INL has shipped a total of more than 42,000 cubic meters of plutonium waste to WIPP, it still has nearly half again as much waste that it had been assumed would go to WIPP.

But WIPP shut down after two serious accidents last February spread radioactive contamination through a third of the underground facility and contaminated 22 workers after radioactivity traveled half a mile up to the surface. Efforts to reopen WIPP safely will be expensive, time-consuming, and may not succeed.

The DOE is currently estimating that “limited” operations at WIPP might begin in 2016. That seems like a long shot and is most certainly outside the hands of anyone in Idaho.

There is already a backlog of TRU waste prepared to go to WIPP, and it is inevitable that some of the shipping schedules will slip and deadlines will be missed. Under the terms of the 1995 Settlement Agreement, the State of Idaho has already prohibited any DOE spent fuel coming to INL until these and other obligations are met. At the same time, DOE-Idaho and its cleanup contractors have assessed the effect of WIPP’s closure on INL cleanup, quite clearly from the perspective of “Keep calm and carry on.”

INL has taken some reasonable steps to ensure that cleanup isn’t compromised. More radioactive, remote-handled (RH) TRU waste will be treated if necessary and stored. Even with WIPP closed, no additional storage space is needed for the RH-TRU. Exhumation at the burial grounds will continue, and targeted waste will be packaged, certified, and stored. Retrieval and treatment of the waste from the asphalt pad will continue, but the focus there has shifted away from TRU waste to low-level radioactive waste that’s mixed with hazardous waste, for which there are disposal sites. What waste can’t be shipped will be stored. INL is reconfiguring current storage space and has started to design additional storage facilities should they be needed. Some of the changes may require new or modified RCRA hazardous waste storage permits.

So that’s the Real World. Reopening WIPP will be challenging, and if it occurs, operations there will never be easy. We have never before asked people to work in a radioactive environment half a mile underground. Here at home, threats to the Snake River Aquifer continue to be addressed under the strong frameworks of the 1995 Settlement Agreement, the INL Superfund cleanup program, and RCRA.

And then there’s the Political World. The Department of Energy and its non-cleanup contractor Battelle want “new missions” for INL, which all seem to require shipping to Idaho the spent nuclear fuel from commercial power reactors the Settlement Agreement bans. The “new mission” folks have convinced some of Idaho’s leaders to compromise the Settlement Agreement and accept two shipments of now-banned waste.

None of the rationales for the Governor and Attorney General’s decision to drop the Settlement Agreement shield against commercial spent fuel shipments is particularly convincing. The spent fuel the Governor and Attorney General intend to allow in this summer will be used in an ongoing pyroprocessing “research project which is funded and currently being implemented.” Pyroprocessing is anything but a “new mission” that will open new energy horizons. Instead, pyroprocessing is a reprocessing technology that INL has already been “researching” for decades. It raises particular proliferation concerns and has proven to be so slow and so expensive that commercial interests will probably never embrace it. It’s not at all clear how the new spent fuel shipment will mean new money for INL or make any significant progress towards overcoming nuclear power’s inherent flaws.

Furthermore, it is simply irrational to assert that accepting new waste will somehow make it easier to ship other waste away, particularly since there might not be any place for it to go. And it is irresponsible to try to force operation of an unsafe facility.

Idaho has some of the strongest tools in the country to protect itself from becoming a dump for the commercial nuclear industry and to make certain the DOE lives up to its obligations to remediate some of the harm it has already done to Idaho’s land and water. It must not set those tools aside.

Get the latest information about what’s happening at WIPP and what it means for the Idaho National Laboratory and other sites. The Snake River Alliance is hosting a panel of nuclear watchdog activists at a series of public events to talk about current issues at WIPP and other sites with plutonium waste, including INL. Please join Don Hancock, Southwest Research and Information Center, New Mexico; Beatrice Brailsford, Snake River Alliance, Idaho; and Tom Clements, Savannah River Site Watch, South Carolina, to learn what’s happening at WIPP and what it means for the rest of us.

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