DOE sets 1998 opening for WIPP; State of New Mexico not ready

Details of 50 years of plutonium shipments revealed

* George Dials, manager of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (or WIPP), says it is crucial to open the radioactive waste repository in 1998. "A key step in the cleanup of the [nuclear weapons] complex is to open up WIPP," Dials said. However, according to a 1990 Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, 70% of WIPP's capacity is being reserved for future waste.

The design director for the New Mexico Highway and Transportation Department said that funding needs to be obtained before state highways can be made ready for WIPP shipments. "We still need to complete a vast amount of roadwork," the official said. The Highway Department estimates that $276 million in additional road work is needed. The Santa Fe bypass remains uncompleted due to funding problems and unresolved property right-of- way issues.

In other WIPP developments, DOE is planning on the New Mexico Environment Department to issue a permit to transport mixed radioactive and hazardous wastes on state highways by August 1996. A state official said that permitting by August was "DOE's schedule, not ours." The New Mexico Hazardous and Radioactive Materials Bureau plans on a permit being issued in June 1997 after a thorough technical review.

IThe environmental Protection Agency must issue two federal permits before WIPP can open. One is to certify that WIPP meets national radioactive disposal requirements and the second, that the waste won't migrate from the dump for 10,000 years. New Mexico Attorney General Tom Udall has said that he might mount a legal challenge against EPA for failing to properly regulate DOE. Udall claims that EPA continues to hold closed-door negotiations with DOE, which violates the 1992 Land Withdrawl Act. Those negotiations have resulted in several changes to WIPP's compliance criteria. The Act requires that EPA take into consideration public comment before making decisions. The deadling for the Attorney General to enter a legal challenge is in early April. EPA has a long history of negotiating various environmental compliance agreements with DOE sites in closed negotiations.

Details of 50 years of plutonium shipments revealed

In more developments on Secretary Hazel O'Leary's openness initiative, DOE has revealed details of more than 50 years of plutonium shipments to other countries. In all, the United States has shipped nearly a ton of the deadly radioactive element to 39 countries, including Pakistan, South Africa, Iraq, Iran and Israel. These five countries are commonly believed to have had or are seeking development of their own nuclear weapons programs.

These past shipments were reportedly not for nuclear weapons development. They were initiated by the Eisenhower Administration under the Atoms for Peace program and were designed to help other nations develop civil nuclear power. The plutonium was of reactor fuel-grade quality rather than weapons-grade purity. Critics of the program maintained that complete prevention of plutonium diversion could never be guaranteed, and that the spread of nuclear technologies helped to create and maintain the scientific knowledge and industrial infrastructure necessary for development of homegrown nuclear weapons programs.

With the release of other information, DOE accounting now puts the total U.S. plutonium inventory at 99.5. metric tons, including all nuclear weapons and all stockpiles. DOE's disclosures are part of an effort to encourage other countries to reveal their plutonium inventories. The American inventory is believed to be considerably less than half of the total global inventory, with Russia holding most of the rest.

Back to News Index