NPR Story
5:05 pm
Thu April 4, 2013

New Mexico: We'll Decide If We Want Washington's Nuclear Waste

Originally published on Tue April 9, 2013 6:26 am

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Department of Energy recently announced a plan to help resolve a problem with leaky storage tanks holding nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state. Their solution: ship the waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The problem is WIPP has been prohibited from receiving Hanford tank waste for nearly a decade. Now, New Mexicans are debating whether to reverse course and accept some of the waste.

An informational video from the DOE describes WIPP's location in a bedded salt formation nearly half a mile underground that resulted from the evaporation of the Permian Sea. The facility's mission is “to permanently dispose of the nation's defense-related transuranic radioactive waste.”

In the 1990s, WIPP provided a jump-start to the failing Carlsbad economy when unemployment was high and people were leaving the largely blue-collar town. It brought around 800 white-collar jobs and transformed the community.

New Mexico has a long tradition of dealing with waste from U.S. nuclear weapons facilities. Los Alamos National Laboratory is where the atomic bomb was developed, for example.

As part of the early negotiations between the state and the DOE, it was agreed that only transuranic, or TRU, waste consisting mainly of contaminated tools, clothing, soil and sludge would be allowed at WIPP. Transuranic waste is less radioactive than High Level Waste, which comes from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. WIPP is not equipped to handle HLW.

Tank waste at Hanford has always been managed as HLW. So back in 2004, shipments of waste from the tanks were prohibited by New Mexico. The DOE is now proposing that the state eliminate that prohibition.

John Heaton is a former New Mexico state representative and Chair of the Carlsbad Mayor's Nuclear Opportunities Task Force. He says just because waste was managed as HLW doesn't mean that it is HLW.

“That tank waste has since been analyzed thoroughly,” Heaton said. “None of those incompatibilities are known to exist. Those were hypothetical at the time that prohibition was put in place.”

Supporters say the Hanford shipments would extend WIPP's mission and keep people working long after waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory is shipped over the next couple of years.

“WIPP has a mission for transuranic waste,” Heaton said. “And it has 16 square miles of bedded salt. We are barely using two-thirds of a square mile, so there is a vast volume available.”

On a recent evening in Albuquerque, Janet Greenwald and other members of nuclear watchdog groups met over bowls of vegetable soup to discuss their opposition to the DOE plan.

“Through the years,” she said, “we've all noticed that if you talk to people too much about nuclear issues, their eyes glaze over. You can't see it. You can't hear it.”

But waste destined for WIPP is driven right through small New Mexico communities by truck, and Greenwald worries about the potential for nuclear spills.

“If we accept the Hanford waste because they are having problems at Hanford,” Greenwald explains, “we are going to end up taking care of all the problems that they have at all the facilities in the U.S. I don't think New Mexicans want to be in that position.”

Don Hancock is another opponent. He directs the Nuclear Waste Project for the Southwest Research and Information Center. For Hancock, the DOE proposal to remove the New Mexico prohibition is a rushed response to a political crisis. Any Hanford waste would have to be processed in a brand new facility there, he says, before it could be shipped to WIPP.

“We'd have to spend all that money anyway,” he said. “I don't know anybody from a technical standpoint that thinks either they can do that, or that they can do that anytime soon, or that it would be cost effective.”

The Department of Energy is preparing their official request for the New Mexico Environment Department to remove the prohibition on Hanford tank waste. According to a DOE statement, once that request goes in, there will be a 60-day public comment period and two public meetings to debate the proposal.

Elaine Baumgartel is a reporter for KUNM in Albuquerque, N.M.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to reflect the DOE will have two public meetings, not public hearings. Hearings involve sworn testimony from all sides, while meetings are forums for public comment.

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