Changing nuclear landscape alters WIPP’s role (April 2016)

When the salt bed trenches of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant were mined on the outskirts of Carlsbad in the mid-1980s, Congress dictated specific guidelines for what could be held within its chambers. Only low-level transuranic waste — rags, tools and even soil that had been contaminated with potent radiation through the creation and testing of nuclear weapons in the U.S. — could fill the 6.2 million-cubic-foot cavern more than 2,000 feet below ground.

Even within these limited parameters, finally approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1998, it took WIPP 20 years to open. When the first waste-bearing truck drove from Los Alamos to Carlsbad the following year, two women sat on the pavement and a man parked his car in the middle of the road, hoping to prevent its passage. Others waved American flags in support.

But in the 17 years since the facility opened, the nation’s nuclear landscape has changed. WIPP remains the world’s only underground geological repository for nuclear waste, and a confluence of budget constraints, geopolitical issues, the threat of terrorists obtaining nuclear materials and other concerns have led many to consider whether WIPP’s mission should be expanded to include not only higher levels of waste from the U.S. but also waste from around the world. Plans are already in motion to accept plutonium from Japan.

The U.S. now has 61.5 metric tons of plutonium that require a path to disposal — a path that increasingly points to WIPP, despite vulnerabilities exposed by an underground truck fire at the plant in 2014 and an unrelated radiation leak that followed days later, shutting down the plant for the past two years. Officials say it might reopen by the year’s end.

In late March, the National Nuclear Security Administration announced that more than 6 tons of plutonium would be diluted with a blend of chemical compounds called oxides — a process known as down-blending — at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and would then be shipped to New Mexico. A portion of that plutonium — just under 1 metric ton, or 2,000 pounds — from “foreign sources” could be included in the shipment, the agency said.

The Department of Energy then announced a $6 billion contract spanning a 10-year period for the Savannah River Site to prepare and package the waste. And on April 1, President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced that “critical” highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium had been removed from the Fast Critical Assembly nuclear reactor research facility in Japan and shipped to the U.S.

Despite objections from the state of South Carolina, the plutonium from Japan was sent to the Savannah River Site. NNSA spokeswoman Francie Israeli confirmed to The New Mexican last week that the plutonium ultimately will be placed at WIPP.

WIPP originally was intended to be the nation’s first deep-underground nuclear repository — not the only such facility in the U.S. or in the world. A high-level waste storage site planned for Yucca Mountain in Nevada was abandoned in 2011 following extensive public and political outcry in the state. No other sites have been designated as nuclear repositories since.


Rebecca Moss, The New Mexican, Posted: Saturday, April 9, 2016 10:45 pm | Updated: 9:23 pm, Sun Apr 10, 2016 at

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