DOE shuts down Idaho nuclear waste shipments to WIPP
November 29, 2006

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Energy has halted some radioactive shipments to its underground nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad after liquid was found in a drum of what was supposed to be dry waste.

The DOE on Sunday shut down shipments from the Idaho National Laboratory, which is trying to send 23,000 drums of waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. The DOE’s Carlsbad office gave officials in Idaho until Dec. 27 to report how the mistake occurred and how it will be fixed.

The problem was discovered while waste drums were being prepared for shipment from Idaho to Carlsbad.

WIPP is not allowed to accept any liquid waste because of the risks of leaks or potentially explosive materials.

The drum in question had been cleared to be shipped after an X-ray showed it was liquid-free. The liquid was spotted after workers double-checked the X-ray under a new confirmation procedure the state of New Mexico required beginning Nov. 16, said Kerry Watson, manager of the DOE’s WIPP office.

State Environment Secretary Ron Curry said he was pleased the procedure worked as it was supposed to.

But Jeremy Maxand, executive director of the Boise-based INL watchdog group Snake River Alliance, said it was concerned that the problem drum went all the way through the inspection process before it was caught by double-checking the X-rays.

“That the drum wasn’t stopped until it was halfway out the door is a red flag for us,” he said.

Before the double-check confirmation process went into effect, 2,904 similar drums of waste were sent to WIPP, which opened in March 1999. The repository buries plutonium-contaminated waste from the nation’s defense industry more than 2,100 feet underground in ancient salt beds.

Watson said he’s confident no other liquids inadvertently made it through before workers began double-checking X-rays of shipments.

“This just appears to be an isolated occurrence,” Watson said Tuesday.

However, Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque said, “They’re going to have to provide more information than just saying, ‘We don’t think there’s a problem.'”

The drums originally came from the Rocky Flats plant near Denver and were sent to the Idaho National Laboratory for storage.

INL is now shipping the waste out of Idaho to WIPP under a 1995 agreement with the state of Idaho that the DOE unsuccessfully challenged in federal court earlier this year. The Bush administration has appealed.