EPA to Discuss Upcoming WIPP Recertification

* The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has scheduled a series of meetings to discuss the upcoming recertification of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), located near Carlsbad, New Mexico.

WIPP is the nation's only permanent defense-related radioactive waste repository. It began receiving shipments of waste in March 1999. Every five years, EPA is required to recertify that WIPP is suited to contain radioactive waste for 10,000 years.

EPA will also review the criteria for disposal of waste at WIPP. WIPP has received transuranic waste from Rocky Flats, Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), among other Department of Energy (DOE) sites nationwide. Transuranic waste is that which is contaminated with plutonium during nuclear weapons production.

Transportation of waste from INEEL was recently halted following allegations that DOE had shipped improper waste to WIPP for disposal. The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) argues that DOE disposed of waste at WIPP that had not been thoroughly inspected for hazardous chemicals, as required by WIPP's operating permit issued by NMED. Although one such shipment was halted en route to WIPP and forced to return to Idaho, some of the waste had already been disposed at WIPP.

Although NMED says that the breach poses little risk to the public, NMED Secretary Ron Curry said, "DOE's failure in this case calls into question their ability to consistently follow these permit requirements."

Paul Detwiler, head of DOE's Carlsbad office, says that although regulators may ask DOE to remove the waste from the ground, it would be too difficult to locate and remove the drums that were improperly stored there. Detwiler said, "The removal of waste is a complex operation that poses risks of its own."

This is the second DOE site to be forced to halt shipments to WIPP following breaches in permit compliance. LANL has not shipped any waste to WIPP since October 2003 after it was discovered that the site had made several shipments of low-level radioactive waste, rather than transuranic. Curry called those shipments "an egregious management error."

DOE has submitted an application for recertification of WIPP to EPA, which concludes, "WIPP continues to comply with the governing laws and regulations for the disposal of transuranic waste...."

Activists argue that DOE's recent and past mistakes in waste management should be considered when recertifying WIPP. Joni Arends, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, said, "EPA must hold DOE, WIPP's manager, accountable when considering whether to recertify this facility. This series of mistakes cannot be tolerated when we're routinely transporting potentially deadly materials across the nation. Citizens should demand nothing less than perfect compliance with the regulations."

Secretary Curry agreed saying, "I believe that this mistake is another symptom of the poor communication at the highest levels of DOE."

EPA will be discussing WIPP recertification on July 26 in Carlsbad, July 27 and 28 in Albuquerque and July 29 in Santa Fe. For more information about these meetings, please contact CCNS at (505) 986-1973.

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