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Feature Excerpt

Summer 1999

WIPP
The next chapter in the nuclear waste storage dilemma

Rocky Flats
Idaho Falls

by Don Hancock

One truckload of nuclear waste arrived at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southeastern New Mexico, about 26 miles east of Carlsbad, on March 26, 1999. The shipment marked the opening of the world's first nuclear waste repository for radioactive and toxic materials that are hazardous for literally thousands of generations. If it is filled to its legal capacity, WIPP will be one of the most dangerous places in the country.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) plans to bring to WIPP about 13 tons of plutonium (of the roughly 100 tons that the U.S. has created over the past 50 years) and undeterminable tons of toxic chemicals, some of which cause cancer even in small quantities. One or two other DOE sites might have more plutonium than WIPP, and some hazardous waste sites would have larger amounts of toxic chemicals. But few places would have the combination of radioactive and hazardous wastes, and none other is designated as a permanent disposal site. And the risks are not just for present and future generations of people living in southeastern New Mexico and west Texas. DOE plans to ship about 38,000 truckloads of waste through 22 states to WIPP over the next 35 years.

Citizen groups will continue to oppose the WIPP facility, so its future is in doubt. It is opposed on the grounds that WIPP does not have an operating permit from the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) because the site is unsafe especially because drilling for oil and natural gas in and near the site can cause massive releases of radioactivity and toxic chemicals and because transportation of the wastes imposes risks of deaths and injuries. Aside from these considerations,WIPP is not a solution to nuclear waste contamination at any DOE site, since DOE intends WIPP to handle less than two percent of the existing nuclear weapons wastes. DOE's own environmental impact statements assert that wastes are safer at existing sites for at least 100 years, making WIPP the least safe alternative. Further, DOE has no intention to relocate the wastes that cause significant soil and water contamination at major DOE sites, nor does it have adequate plans to deal with that contamination.

WIPP's future also may be affected by events at the site. The waste hoist, which transports waste from the surface storage building to the underground disposal rooms, broke down on May 24, temporarily stopping waste disposal. A more serious problem will be the likely collapse of the roof in one or more of the seven existing disposal rooms, mined more than 10 years ago to prepare for WIPP's planned opening in 1989. It is most apt to occur in the room where waste is now being disposed, because maintenance and construction of roof supports cannot be done now that the room is no longer empty. Independent experts have testified that tons of ceiling could fall with only a few days' notice. Nevertheless, DOE remains confident that it can maintain the rooms to avoid any roof falls over the next several years.

Although it will not have an operating permit from the New Mexico Environment Department, DOE intends to continue to ship waste to WIPP during 1999. Since the March opening, DOE has sent about one truckload each week from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to WIPP. The 17 shipments approved by a federal court judge are scheduled to be completed by the end of July. One shipment arrived from Idaho in late April, but no more shipments are likely this year from that state because of continuing problems with complying with DOE's procedures. Any other shipments this year would come from the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado the first truck left on June 15, delayed by one hour by protesters and one shipment each week thereafter.


Rocky Flats & WIPP: What's Ahead?

by LeRoy Moore, Ph.D. TOP

Rocky Flats near Denver received EPA certification on March 24, 1999, to ship its TRU (transuranic) and TRM (transuranic-mixed) waste to WIPP. The first shipment left on June 15. Currently Rocky Flats stores 2,100 cubic meters of TRU and TRM waste (about 10,000 55-gallon drums). An estimated additional 13,000 cubic meters of this waste or 60,000 more drums will be generated in cleanup. As of May 13, 310 drums of TRU waste had been fully certified for transport to WIPP.

Much of the WIPP-bound waste from Rocky Flats consists of residues waste with plutonium content so high that in bomb-making days the material was saved so the plutonium could be extracted for use. WIPP's "Safeguard Termination Limits" specify that plutonium not exceed 10 percent of the weight of the drum's contents. For shipment, the maximum weight of plutonium per drum is 200 grams. Residues from Rocky Flats will contribute several tons of plutonium to the total buried at WIPP. DOE says WIPP is essential for cleanup of Rocky Flats. But WIPP's only relation to the cleanup activities of site-remediation and isolation of dangerous materials is to receive the waste. DOE's disregard of appeals that it provide on-site storage for this waste means the site is now running out of storage space, a problem management hopes WIPP can help solve. Of the 38,000 truckloads of nuclear waste DOE plans to send to WIPP over 35 years, 28,000 will travel through Colorado about 800 per year or, two to three per day. Less than 2,000 of these will originate at Rocky Flats; the rest will come from Washington and Idaho. An accident resulting in a breach of the transport container could contaminate an urban or rural area.

The best plan for the Rocky Flats waste intended for WIPP is to store it on site in a facility that isolates it from the environment so it can be monitored and retrieved. DOE has never considered this option, though it did admit in its 1980 and 1997 WIPP Environmental Impact Statements that it is safer to leave waste at current locations for the next 100 years than to ship it to WIPP.

From the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, P.O. Box 1156, Boulder, CO 80306; (303) 444-6981. RMPJC has been a successful agent for nonviolent social change since 1983.


Idaho's Cleanup Problems Are Not WIPPed

by Beatrice Brailsford TOP

Early on the morning of April 27, the first 42 barrels of newly labeled "non-mixed" waste left the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Like all the waste that might ever go to WIPP, the first barrels were among INEEL's most safely stored. To avoid any last ditch effort to block it, the shipment pulled out before courtrooms were open. So there was some media frenzy, but the political ballyhoo wasn't what it could have been later in the day.

Media frenzy, political ballyhoo. That's what Idaho gets out of INEEL's shipments to WIPP. It's what we don't get that's the problem. The Snake River Aquifer is the second largest on the North American continent and is a part of the headwaters of the Columbia River system, a vast artery for the entire Northwest. It is the drinking water for a substantial percentage of Idaho's people, and we use it to grow our Famous Potatoes a third of the U.S. fall harvest. The Snake River Aquifer is our lifeblood. Unfortunately, INEEL was built on the upstream end of the Snake River Aquifer, and nuclear contamination is spread across the massive site.

Among the most pressing threats: about 2 million cubic feet of plutonium-laced waste is buried there. Hazardous chemicals from the burial grounds have already reached the aquifer, and it's just a matter of time before the plutonium gets there, for it's moving much farther and faster than we were led to expect. But it's quite possible INEEL will never dig up the buried plutonium. Heavy contamination has also come from leaks at INEEL's high level waste tank farm, and the soil column there is a direct path to our groundwater. Once it's there, removing it presents technical challenges we may never overcome. Opening WIPP or shutting it down has absolutely no effect on these perils to our water, though media frenzy and political ballyhoo tend to strip resources from the real job at hand.

The first job every morning is to protect our lifeblood. Though the first shipment to WIPP has left and some have gotten their political fix, many people in Idaho aren't convinced that it matters one way or the other. Others of us are certain that the time, money, and attention squandered on WIPP actually diminish INEEL's ability to reverse the damage it has done to our land and water. We'll be working to refocus efforts on protecting one of this nation's most valuable and vulnerable resources: the water of the West.

Snake River Alliance, (208) 234-4782; fax (208) 232-4922.

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The nuclear waste dump is permitted to operate until 2024, but the federal government want to expand the amount and types of waste allowed with NO end date.
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