Illegal Waste Shipped from Hanford to WIPP

* According to documents obtained by the Albuquerque Journal, the Department of Energy (DOE) has shipped 602 drums of radioactive waste illegally to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. This is the second time this year that DOE has shipped prohibited waste to WIPP.

The waste was prohibited from WIPP by a 2003 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) directive that indicated that the waste had not been properly tested. EPA is currently undertaking a technical review of the incident to determine whether action is required and is considering halting shipments from Hanford following the latest incident.

This is the fourth time since WIPP's opening in 1999 that prohibited waste has been disposed there. Shipments from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) were stopped in 2003 after low-level radioactive waste was illegally shipped to WIPP. WIPP is licensed only to accept transuranic waste, which is contaminated with plutonium. Shipments have yet to resume.

Shipments from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) were stopped after it was discovered that more than 100 drums of improperly characterized waste were shipped to WIPP. The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) levied a $2.4 million fine against DOE as a result. Shipments to WIPP from INEEL have resumed.

An editorial in the Journal this week advocated stopping all shipments until DOE can guarantee that the waste being shipped is appropriate for WIPP. The editorial said, "Before DOE gets another chance to dump untested or improperly tested waste in New Mexico, the state should consider a moratorium on all WIPP shipments until appropriate fines are levied and paid, and adequate testing procedures are in place."

NMED Secretary Ron Curry has not indicated either that all shipments would be stopped until the problems are resolved or that NMED will fine DOE for this violation. However, Curry called the infractions, "mismanagement at the highest level."

Paul Detwiler, manager of WIPP, said that they are undertaking measures to ensure that this type of mistake does not happen again. Detwiler indicated in the past that improperly disposed waste would not be removed from WIPP in the interest of protecting worker safety. Detwiler claims that the waste does not pose a threat to safety or the environment.

EPA agreed with this assessment, saying, "Although we do not believe [the waste already disposed at WIPP] will adversely effect WIPP's performance or [effect] protection of public health and the environment, a serious and thorough response to these problems is necessary to maintain public confidence in ... WIPP's performance and EPA's oversight process."

Joni Arends, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, responded saying, "We believe that confidence in DOE's ability to manage waste shipments to WIPP is already shaken to the core. We agree with the Journal and believe that waste shipments should stop until DOE can prove that it is not taking advantage of WIPP and the State of New Mexico."

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