The WIPP story: it is now and will be a saga…..

Radioactive waste casks outside the WIPP facility. Photo from DOE

Radioactive waste casks outside the WIPP facility. Photo from DOE

When a radioactive waste truck caught on fire inside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on February 5, it seemed like it was probably an isolated incident, not the beginning of a saga that could affect U.S. radioactive waste policy permanently and even radwaste policy internationally.

But the truck fire was followed by a still-unexplained Valentine’s Day offsite radiation release–including plutonium. That was then followed by a second, for a time unrevealed, and also still-unexplained, radiation release on March 11, the third anniversary of the onset of the Fukushima disaster. And it became clear that the WIPP saga will have long-term ramifications, not only for the nuclear weapons radwaste WIPP was built to handle, but also for the far larger and much more radioactive inventory of commercial high-level nuclear waste.

The immediate impacts are clear: WIPP is closed and will remain closed for quite some time. The Department of Energy Monday issued a document outlining its preparation plans for re-entering the WIPP facility, but did not even speculate on when workers may actually be able to go back into the site to see what happened.

Meanwhile, the state of New Mexico has withdrawn plans to allow an expansion of the WIPP site and it’s not likely that expansion will be allowed anytime soon. And radioactive waste that was supposed to be delivered to WIPP has been diverted to the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) “low-level” radioactive waste site in Andrews County, Texas–which is just a stone’s throw from the New Mexico border and the region’s “nuclear corridor.” But it’s not at all clear that WCS is licensed to accept such transuranic waste, which by definition is far longer-lived than much “low-level” waste. Continued shipments like that is likely to set up a battle between environmentalists and WCS backers in Texas that may not be resolved quickly.

Former DOE official Bob Alvarez has written a thorough and thoughtful piece about the long-term implications of the WIPP saga on the nation’s program for handling nuclear weapons waste in Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. But he finds far more questions than answers in this saga:

“At least 66,200 cubic meters of transuranic waste sit at Energy Department sites, awaiting shipment to WIPP. The Energy Department is also considering disposal of 5 tons of excess plutonium now at the Savannah River Site in WIPP. Over the past decade, the department has also been seeking to use WIPP to dispose of the contents of several high-level radioactive waste tanks at Hanford by reclassifying those contents as transuranic waste. WIPP is being eyed as a final resting place for tens of tons of plutonium from dismantled weapons as well, because the Energy Department is backing away from the $30 billion price tag now attached to a plan for mixing the plutonium with uranium and using that mixed-oxide to fuel nuclear power plants.

An extended closure of WIPP would no doubt increase political pressure emanating from Washington state, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Idaho, and New Mexico, none of which wants to be left with large amounts of nuclear waste and nowhere to put it. The stakes are large. The questions are many. Competing forces await answers. Surprises should be expected.”

For the much larger problem of commercial high-level radioactive waste, some nuclear advocates had been promoting WIPP as a potential alternative to the cancelled Yucca Mountain, Nevada waste dump project. That concept is not only on hold, it is certainly more permanently buried than the WIPP waste itself has turned out to be.

And that has left legislators in a quandary. Some, of course, still have dreams of reviving the Yucca Mountain project (one group’s dream is most peoples’ nightmare…), but that idea cannot get through the Senate as long as Harry Reid of Nevada is Majority Leader, and wouldn’t be signed by President Obama, who ended the project, anyway. And the longer Yucca stays dead, the harder it would be to resurrect no matter who runs the Congress and White House in the future.

On the Senate side, Energy Committee members already have admitted defeat this year in their effort to move any kind of radioactive waste legislation–for most their preference had been to establish a mechanism to create “interim” storage sites for high-level waste, but the Committee got bogged down in details and the concept remains controversial and publicly unpopular. Last week, four Republican Senators toured nuclear facilities at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and expressed their concern about the problems at WIPP, but couldn’t offer any solutions to either WIPP or the commercial waste problem. INL officials said that their Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project–WIPP’s biggest current user–has suspended all shipments to WIPP, meaning the waste will stay onsite at INL for the indefinite future.

And Canada, which is considering a low and intermediate level waste geologic disposal facility on the Great Lakes, has ordered additional public hearings on the proposal in light of the WIPP problems. Given that WIPP is the only deep geologic disposal facility currently operating in the world (in Europe, especially Eastern Europe, it is frequently–and incorrectly–described as a “high-level” radioactive waste site by nuclear advocates), the lessons, whatever they turn out to be, from the series of WIPP failures surely will affect other proposed and potential sites for years to come.

For an excellent overview of what has happened at WIPP so far–and the overlooked but potentially critical impact of natural gas fracking and oil wells in the nearby area (there are more than 100 operating natural gas and oil wells within a mile of the WIPP boundary)–check this article by Dahr Jamail for

Michael Mariotte

March 26, 2014


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