Transparency And Recovery At WIPP

By Marisa Demarco

— The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is supposed to store radioactive garbage for 10,000 years. In February, the site sprung a radiation leak, just 15 years after the site opened in 1999. A few days before the leak, a salt-hauling truck caught fire. Recovery is expected to be hugely expensive—$500 million, possibly.

Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich announced today that President Obama signed a bill that kicks $324 million to the recovery effort at WIPP.

The state also just announced fines of $17.7 million for WIPP, and $36.6 for Los Alamos National Laboratory, though those numbers can be decreased as the facilities demonstrate compliance.

HaPe_Gera via Compfight CC

HaPe_Gera via Compfight CC

I got to speak with John Heaton, chairman of the Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force. He’s in an interesting position, balancing Carlsbad residents’ desire for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to reopen against the need for cautious recovery at the site, the only deep geologic pit in the national that stores nuclear waste.

Transparency is a big problem for Department of Energy, according to Heaton. You’ll hear him talk about it during our interview.

Heaton is not the first person I’ve spoken with who brought up concerns about WIPP and transparency. WIPP and LANL have regularly refused invitations to be on KUNM Call-In Shows about the leak and declined to comment for stories. A series of stories in the Santa Fe New Mexican by Patrick Malone also reveals LANL tried to minimize the danger posed by the leak.

But back in March, I also spoke with Dr. Bob Neill, who led the Environmental Evaluation Group, which evaluated the WIPP site for over 25 years before the plant opened. He said immediately after the leak was discovered, the public should have been given details to help dispel rumors. It’s hard to emphasize how important an upfront approach can be when you’re talking about nuclear waste.

Heaton says the reality is WIPP is a nuclear waste repository that worked, though not perfectly. Obviously, a lot of mistakes were made due to lack of training, he says, and the fire should have never occurred.

He says WIPP is in the process of determining that only one drum was breached, and a 90-foot poll that reaches out over the drums and will drop cameras between the drums. He’s also encouraging the Department of Energy to release to the public an easy-to-parse timeline, showing upcoming benchmarks.


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