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Editorial: WIPP may be only option for Hanford nuke waste

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As much as 3.1 million gallons of highly radioactive waste dating back to World War II nuclear weapons work is partially submerged in the ground at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford site in Washington state.

And some of it is leaking from the old steel tanks.

DOE wants to dispose of — essentially store in perpetuity — that matter in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeast New Mexico. Most residents and local officials of the Carlsbad-Hobbs area don’t object. In fact, they’ve thrown out the welcome mat to the storage and processing of nuclear materials. They like the high-paying jobs and economic benefits WIPP and other nuclear industries have brought their communities.

However, moving the waste to WIPP will take a modification to the underground site’s state permit. DOE says it will seek the change based on its belief the waste “may be properly and legally classified” as meeting permit requirements. The permit now allows for low-level and transuranic defense waste, which contains some materials similar to the Hanford waste.

The agency has said for years that Hanford waste is no more radioactive than waste being sent to WIPP. However, Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration disagreed in 2004 and wrote strict provisions into WIPP’s permit to bar the Hanford waste from WIPP.

A Blue Ribbon Commission in 2012 issued a report that highlighted the urgent need for the nation to deal with its nuclear waste disposal problem. While not recommending specific sites, it had high praise for WIPP and suggested New Mexico could lead by example.

But the nation continues to do little to solve the problem. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took Yucca Mountain off the table, after $15 billion went into its development, the nation was left with no other permanent long-term storage facility but WIPP.

If the permit request passes muster with the state Environment Department, it should be approved. Burial of the Hanford mess deep in the salt formations at WIPP is far better than leaving it in leaky tanks.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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