DOE Planning to Expedite Shipments from LANL to WIPP

* In light of recent world events, such as the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. and the May 2000 Cerro Grande Fire, Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) is hoping to accelerate its waste shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (or WIPP). The Department of Energy (or DOE) would "cherry pick" 2,000 waste drums of the more than 45,000 drums sitting in plastic tents at LANL's radioactive dump at Technical Area 54, awaiting transportation to WIPP. DOE claims that the 2,000 drums are most vulnerable to terrorist attack or wildfire because the drums contain loose plutonium-contaminated debris, which could spread easily if ignited. For example, if an airplane crashed into these drums, the loose plutonium could disperse widely.

Activists are concerned that this is nothing more than an attempt by DOE to weaken its environmental and safety standards. Activists believe all the drums are vulnerable and should be placed immediately in existing buildings, or bunkers should be built at LANL to store the drums.

DOE predicted 16 years for completion of the shipments of LANL's existing waste. However, DOE budget proposals for next year extended the schedule an additional 15 years, lengthening the period for waste transportation to the year 2032. James Orbin, director of the waste management division for DOE in Albuquerque, says this timeframe is unacceptable given the current political climate and the high-risk of wildfire in the LANL area.

Although Orbin claims the majority of the waste stored at LANL is not a threat, DOE's proposal raises many transportation concerns. DOE suggests using a 30-year-old, obsolete rail cargo container called the "Supertiger," and to close the road from LANL to WIPP in order to accommodate the oversized loads.

Steve Zappe of the New Mexico Environment Department's Hazardous Waste Bureau, which regulates WIPP, said, "Although the WIPP permit doesn't generally concern itself with transportation issues, the permit states very clearly that waste can only arrive at the facility in sealed TRUPACT-II containers. Any proposal to ship waste to WIPP in any other manner would require a permit modification prior to implementation." Considering the loose debris that these 2,000 drums contain, transportation in any other container, besides the TRUPACT-II, would be extremely dangerous.

Activists are concerned that DOE is attempting to shortcut the permit modification process. Don Hancock, of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, said, "WIPP is well behind schedule for receiving waste from Rocky Flats and Idaho, which are its high priority sites. So whatever Los Alamos wants to do, it won't happen for more than a year. There's time to involve the public in meaningful discussions about what to do about dangerous wastes at LANL."

Also, there is concern that interest in expediting waste shipments to WIPP might detract from real waste management solutions. Hancock said, "We think that stopping the production and burial of more waste, and retrieving waste already in the ground are higher priorities for spending money and for protecting public health and safety than changing the laws and agreements to hurry shipment of waste from LANL to WIPP."

DOE will begin an internal review and will be seeking feedback soon.

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