Although Congress has yet to provide funds, re-opening the country’s only nuclear waste dump remains a “high priority” for the Energy Department, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told a town hall meeting in Carlsbad, New Mexico, last night.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which stores 3.2 million cubic feet of plutonium-contaminated waste in salt caverns 2,150 feet underground in a 16-square-mile compound 26 miles east of Carlsbad, was closed following a low-level radiation leak Feb. 19 in drums of waste transferred there for perpetual storage from Los Alamos National Laboratory.
This leak followed a fire in an underground mining truck at WIPP on Feb. 14.
“Let me make no bones about it: WIPP has to come all the way back,” Moniz told the meeting in his opening remarks. “This is really an absolutely core facility for the country.”
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., told the town hall meeting Congress cannot provide funds for the WIPP cleanup until Energy comes up with a detailed recovery plan for the facility. Udall said the Senate version of the 2015 Energy bill includes a $220 million WIPP operating budget and $102 million for recovery operations.
Moniz said Energy will have a WIPP recovery plan ready by the end of September and will “try its best” to get the funds needed to support cleanup of radiation that has contaminated portions of the underground storage site.
“Safety has to be the driver” for the WIPP cleanup, Moniz vowed to an audience of local residents and workers who expressed concerns in their remarks about the lack of a safety culture at WIPP.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said while he believed there should be “no allowable deviation from safety standards for WIPP,” the February leak needs to be “taken into context” as a low-level leak less than normal background radiation.
WIPP currently stores low-level waste contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive isotopes generated in development of nuclear weapons. Moniz told the town hall meeting Energy is considering the facility to store spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants, but provided no time line.