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Past experiences should guide WIPP forward

By April 28, 2014Uncategorized

By Jon Goldstein, President, Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund Board of Directors | Guest Column | The Albuquerque Journal
The news in recent weeks from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad has not been good.
First, an underground truck fire blemished the safety record of the world’s only geologic radioactive waste disposal facility. Next, and even more troubling, a pair of radioactive releases exposed at least 21 workers and the surrounding surface environment to potentially cancer-causing particles.
While the U.S. Department of Energy and WIPP’s managers search for the answers to why this happened and how it will be prevented in the future, they would be well served to also look back to WIPP’s past and re-learn the lessons that allowed the facility to open in the first place. WIPP took three decades, several lawsuits and myriad battles before becoming the first and only facility of its kind in the world. This history holds several lessons that could help in the current crisis.
A key part of the approval process that originally allowed WIPP to open in 1999 was the promise to the state of New Mexico that the facility would remain solely devoted to a narrowly defined category of defense-related transuranic waste, the leftovers from the nation’s nuclear weapons program. This promise has shifted in recent years and some have started to eye WIPP as a site for other, more dangerous, radioactive waste streams.
Even after the recent accidents in Carlsbad, federal officials at an Albuquerque public meeting recently stated that WIPP may still be under consideration for these high-level wastes.
This is inappropriate and must stop. WIPP must focus on doing the narrow but important job it has done for 15 years safely and correctly. According to the most recent data, more than 66,000 cubic meters of waste still remains at sites across the U.S. awaiting shipment to WIPP, plenty of work to keep the facility busy for years to come. Consideration of other waste streams for WIPP only distracts from this important job and erodes confidence in the promises made to the people of New Mexico.
The ability of state regulators at the New Mexico Environment Department to oversee and verify the safe operation of WIPP has long been a key to the facility’s success.
Unfortunately, these efforts have been dramatically curtailed in recent years as longtime, experienced regulatory staffers have been moved off the project and few, if any, enforcement actions by NMED against WIPP have been issued.
Strong, state-based regulatory oversight, including enforcement when needed, must be encouraged to ensure that promises made are promises kept. Furthermore, as a result of the recent accidents, the state should consider whether stronger permit requirements, such as more robust waste sampling, are needed to prevent similar issues in the future.
Before WIPP opened, the DOE created and funded the Environmental Evaluation Group, an independent group of scientists, to oversee the project and conduct third-party research. Groups like the EEG help give the public a degree of comfort that conclusions reached are scientifically valid.
Unfortunately, DOE ceased funding the group in 2004 and it was disbanded. In light of the current mishaps, the DOE should consider reestablishing the EEG with a more permanent federal funding mechanism.
In a 2010 speech at Princeton University, now Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair Allison MacFarlane said, “There is nothing new with nuclear waste. History keeps repeating itself, like Groundhog Day.” When dealing with waste that will remain with us for at least 24,000 years, the analogy to waking up and reliving the same experience over and over again is undoubtedly apt.
WIPP should learn from its experiences and embrace its past. To move ahead, the facility must re-implement and improve upon what worked in getting it established.
Jon Goldstein is a former secretary of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, and former deputy secretary of the state Environment Department.