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Hanford waste shipment plan under debate in New Mexico

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Elaine Baumgartel
Northwest News Network

Last month, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a plan to send some nuclear waste from leaky storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation to southern New Mexico.

The proposed new storage site is near Carlsbad, and it's called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. WIPP, as it’s known, has been prohibited from receiving Hanford tank waste for nearly a decade. Now, New Mexicans are debating whether to reverse course, and accept some of the waste.

WIPP is nearly half a mile underground near Carlsbad New Mexico. The facility provided a jump-start to the failing Carlsbad economy in the 1990s when unemployment was high and people were leaving the largely blue-collar town. WIPP brought around 800 white-collar jobs, and transformed the community.

Today, that same salt formation protects New Mexico’s future by providing a safe place to permanently dispose of the nation's defense-related transuranic radioactive waste. New Mexico has a long tradition of dealing with waste from U.S. nuclear weapons facilities. Think Los Alamos National Laboratory and the birth of the atomic bomb.

Hanford waste shipments prohibited in the past

As part of the early negotiations between the state and the DOE, it was agreed that only transuranic waste—consisting mainly of contaminated tools, clothing, soil and sludge— would be allowed at WIPP.

This so-called "TRU" waste is less radioactive than high-level waste, which comes from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. WIPP is not equipped to handle that super-hot stuff.

But tank waste at Hanford has always been managed as high-level waste. As a result, back in 2004, shipments of waste from the tanks were prohibited by New Mexico—a prohibition the DOE is now proposing that the state eliminate.

“Because it was managed as HLW doesn't mean that is what it really is," said John Heaton, a former New Mexico state representative and Chair of the Carlsbad Mayor's Nuclear Opportunities Task Force. “That tank waste has since been analyzed thoroughly and none of those incompatibilities are known to exist, those were hypothetical at the time that that prohibition was put in place.”

Supporters say the Hanford shipments would extend the repository's mission and keep people working long after waste from Los Alamos National Labs is shipped over the next couple of years.

“WIPP has a mission for transuranic waste," Heaton said. "And it has 16 square miles of bedded salt. We are barely using two-thirds of a square mile, so there is a vast volume available.”

Opponents worry about potential problems, costs

On a recent evening in Albuquerque, Janet Greenwald and other members of nuclear watchdog groups met over bowls of vegetable soup to discuss their opposition to the DOE plan.

“Through the years we've all noticed that if you talk to people too much about nuclear issues, their eyes glaze over, you can't see it, you can't hear it,” she said.

But waste destined for WIPP is driven right through small New Mexico communities by truck, and Greenwald worries about the potential for nuclear spills.

“If we accept the Hanford waste because they are having problems, we are going to end up taking care of all the problems that they have at all the facilities in the U.S.," Greenwald says. "I don't think New Mexico wants to be in that position.”

Don Hancock is another opponent. He directs the Nuclear Waste Project for the Southwest Research and Information Center.

For Hancock, the DOE proposal to remove the New Mexico prohibition is a rushed response to a political crisis. Any Hanford waste would have to be processed in a brand new facility there, he says, before it could be shipped to WIPP.

“We’d have to spend all that money anyway," Hancock said. "I don't know anybody from a technical standpoint that thinks either they can do or that they can do that anytime soon, or that it would be cost-effective.”

The Department of Energy is preparing their official request for the New Mexico Environment Department to remove the prohibition on Hanford tank waste.

According to a DOE statement, once that request goes in, there will be a 60-day public comment period and two public hearings to debate the proposal.