LANL Waste Shipments Four Years Behind Schedule

* A report released by the Department of Energy (DOE) Inspector General this week found that shipments of transuranic waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) are running four years behind schedule. LANL was scheduled to finish shipping 40,000 drums of waste to WIPP by 2010, although the report estimates that shipment will not be completed until 2014 and will cost $70 million more than was budgeted.

The report attributes the delay to LANL's consistently not following the approved waste processing procedures. As part of the shipment process, LANL is required to characterize the waste to ensure that it meets WIPP acceptance criteria, review the data generated by the characterization process and ship the waste to WIPP. In October 2003, LANL improperly characterized 98 drums of waste and shipped them to WIPP illegally. Waste shipments from LANL were stopped following the incident and have yet to resume.

Due to such delays, DOE is out of compliance with its agreement with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and the Environmental Protection Agency. The agreement, which was signed in May 2002, required that DOE remove all of its high-risk transuranic waste from LANL by December 2004. However, only 168 of 2,300 high-risk drums have been shipped. This delay is due in large part to waste characterization problems that have halted characterization for years at a time. The report finds, "[DOE] will not meet its transuranic waste disposal commitments because [LANL] did not adhere to waste certification requirements."

DOE agreed that they must re-evaluate characterization practices at LANL in order to retain shipping schedules. However, DOE contended that it is too early to determine whether they will meet their 2010 deadline. They argue that they will finish shipping high-risk waste by October 2005, although shipment will not resume until May.

Activists believe that characterization problems for transuranic waste may exist across the entire DOE complex, particularly given recent characterization problems at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). NMED recently reached a settlement with DOE and Washington TRU Solutions, WIPP's managing contractor, following the shipment of more than 100 drums of improperly characterized waste from INL. While the initial fine from NMED to DOE topped $2 million, the final settlement stipulates a $90,000 penalty, with $600,000 per year for three years to be directed to an environmental oversight bureau at WIPP.

The settlement also found that the waste from INL does not threaten human health or the environment, although DOE and Washington TRU Solutions provided a removal plan to NMED should the waste have been found to pose a risk.

The parties also agreed that the settlement cannot be used to demonstrate compliance history of Washington TRU Solutions in cases of future violations. The contract for Washington TRU Solutions to manage WIPP was recently extended by five years, during which the company estimates that it will receive 20,000 additional cubic meters of waste at WIPP by 2010.

Joni Arends, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, said, "Given DOE's inadequate performance thus far, we highly doubt that these ambitious schedules will be met."

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