Monday, October 16, 2006
WIPP to Get Hot Waste; State Officials Set To Sign New Permit Today
By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer

With 83,258 drums of radioactive waste tucked into salt beds 2,150 feet beneath the southeast New Mexico desert and more arriving weekly, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s operations have become humdrum.

Seven years after WIPP opened amid fanfare and controversy as the nation’s first attempt at permanent underground nuclear waste disposal, operations have become routine.

The routine is about to be broken.

The waste coming to WIPP has so far been relatively tame. As long as the steel drums holding it don’t pop open, you could walk up and hug one of the containers with no ill effect.

But with a revised operating permit, to be signed by state officials today, a new class of waste is headed for WIPP that is decidedly unhuggable.

The new waste, which is significantly more radioactive, has been part of the WIPP plan all along. But on the principle that it’s better to learn to walk before you start running, officials started with the easier waste before moving on to the hot stuff.

A state hearing officer, after hearings in Carlsbad and Santa Fe, concluded last month that WIPP has earned the right to take the next step.

State Environment Secretary Ron Curry and Gov. Bill Richardson will be in Carlsbad today formally signing the permit allowing WIPP to take the next step.

It is “the last major milestone” in WIPP’s journey from a research effort (hence the name “pilot plant”) to a fully operational nuclear waste disposal site, said State Rep. John Heaton, D-Carlsbad.

As a result, according to Heaton and others, WIPP has become a model for others around the world trying to figure out what to do with their nuclear waste.

“WIPP is one of the few success stories, in that it’s operating and they’re putting waste in,” said Bob Neill, who from 1978 until 2000 managed a state WIPP oversight group.

WIPP’s safety record­ unblemished by any spills or leaks since it opened in March 1999­ suggests it can safely handle the new waste, state hearing officer Rip Harwood wrote in his September ruling.

“WIPP has been open now for seven years and we have not had any major spills, problems, transportation accidents,” Neill pointed out.

Even WIPP’s harshest critic agrees the project has been safe so far.

“WIPP has operated better than I thought would be the case in 1999 when it opened,” said Don Hancock, head of the Nuclear Waste Safety Project at the Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque-based non-profit.

The safety record is a point of intense pride on the part of the workers at WIPP. “They are relentless in their efforts to maintain that kind of record,” said Dave Moody, the manager of the project for the U.S. Department of Energy, the federal agency in charge of WIPP.

The WIPP project began in the early 1970s, when the government began looking at the deep salt beds beneath the southeast New Mexico desert as a permanent burial ground for plutonium-contaminated waste from nuclear weapons production.

After being tangled in litigation and conflict, Congress settled most of the issues in 1992, ratifying a complex deal detailing what could and could not eventually go to WIPP.

That 1992 deal laid the groundwork for what is happening today.

Project insiders have a shorthand for the two kinds of waste that neatly describes the differences. Up to now, only “contact-handled waste” has been brought to WIPP. That means that the waste is sufficiently benign that workers unloading waste drums from their protective steel shipping containers can safely touch the drums.

The waste allowed under the new state permit is called “remote-handled.” Its radiation levels are so high that the waste drums have to stay in shielded containers, or be handled by remote control robotic arms inside a special shielded room with thick concrete walls called, for obvious reasons, a “hot cell.”

While other WIPP opponents tried to block remote-handled waste entirely, Hancock recognized the inevitability and worked instead for a state permit that included tough standards to ensure the new waste is handled safely.

“Some people may consider me a sellout on this, but I’ve been telling people for years that we are going to have remote-handled waste at WIPP,” Hancock said.

WIPP’s success has made it a model for officials from around the world trying to figure out how to cope with the technical as well as political difficulties of the nuclear waste issue.

In the last year, for example, WIPP has had visiting delegations from Japan, China and the United Kingdom, according to Moody.