Synthesis/Regeneration 9   (Winter 1996)

WIPP: No Rationale, No Safety!

by Garland Harris, Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) could become the world's first permanent underground nuclear waste dump! —if it opens in l998 as the Department of Energy (DOE) plans. In the works since the 70s, the WIPP is meant for the final disposal of nuclear weapons waste. However, only 30% of the transuranic (TRU) weapons waste it would hold exists; the remaining 70% would have come from future nuclear weapons production. Since the US is no longer making nuclear weapons, WIPP lacks a mission commensurate with its expense and the environmental risk it poses.

Located near Carlsbad, New Mexico, WIPP is sited in a mineral-rich area where oil, gas and potash have been and still are being successfully mined. Since l974, when the WIPP site was evicted from Lyons, Kansas, another oil-rich area, many New Mexican scientists and citizens have opposed the WIPP. It is above a reservoir of pressurized brine and below an aquifer. The geology which is characterized by karst, underground channels through which water may rush unpredictably, would multiply the dangers of the world's first underground nuclear waste dump.

Congress and many scientists have already determined that WIPP, which is sited in an ancient salt bed, is not appropriate for high level nuclear waste, such as spent fuel rods from commercial nuclear reactors. The DOE does have a large inventory of TRU waste, but it is in the soil, completely uncontained and threatening groundwater such as Idaho's Snake River Aquifer. Although the transuranic waste in the ground is much older than the barrels scheduled for WIPP, it was never planned to dig up this soil and send it to WIPP.

What, if any, role does WIPP play in solving the nuclear waste problem? Rep. Joe Skeen's (R-NM) fast-track bill to open WIPP early would sidestep the issue of an appropriate mission by opening the site without clarifying its purpose. It would also remove the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from its role of certifying the safety of WIPP before it opens. Included in the EPA process is an analysis of the TRU waste inventory which is essential for intelligent planning.

In l992, Congress passed the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act, requiring EPA to examine WIPP thoroughly, develop criteria for its certification and certify that it meets the criteria. The process is moving slowly, and the EPA has developed draft compliance criteria which were disappointing in their lack of stringency. Citizen opposition at hearings last spring challenged the role of DOE in weakening the criteria. Because of an Executive Order by President Clinton, the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) brought DOE and EPA together to discuss the draft compliance criteria, and DOE proposed several changes which weakened the criteria. As citizens, we were shocked and angered by the DOE manipulation of the regulatory process and by the weakness of the EPA criteria. The Executive Order, perhaps unwittingly, gave DOE additional leverage to weaken the EPA criteria. It appears that DOE, like Rep. Skeen, would just like to get it open!

WIPP is a David and Goliath struggle: the people of New Mexico have opposed the project from the start. Millions have been spent by the DOE on public relations projects in schools and throughout the state to reduce the opposition. Thousands of New Mexicans have attended hearings, written and called Congress and the Governor. A petition with l6,000 signatures was presented to former Governor Bruce King a few years ago. Thousands of taxpayers' dollars have supported the campaign against WIPP. When the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act passed Congress in l992, every member of the New Mexico Congressional delegation supported it. CARD remained opposed, but lobbied hard for EPA certification in the hope that its defects would be exposed. Now Rep. Skeen has reneged on the Congressional compromise and proposes to violate the good faith of New Mexicans by arrogantly removing the only independent scientific review WIPP will have before nuclear waste is placed in it.

Skeen's claim that his amendment would save taxpayers' money was not supported by the Congressional Budget Office, and therefore, his attempt to attach it to the Budget Reconciliation Bill will also fail. But, the Skeen bill will return to the House. CARD and New Mexico's statewide coalition, the All Peoples Coalition (APC) urge citizens to oppose the Skeen bill (H.R. l663) in the House and, if it passes the House, in the Senate.

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