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Editorial: Look to WIPP for safe storage of nuke waste

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —

In 2011, Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., introduced a bill to allow the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to accept non-Department of Energy transuranic nuclear waste.

And in 2013 — thanks to the meddling of Sen. Harry Reid, who has turned Yucca Mountain into a $15 billion empty underground parking garage — much of the nation’s nuclear waste still doesn’t have a real home. So Pearce has re-introduced his proposal to accept more of the lower-level waste — typically gloves, clothing, tools and aprons exposed to nuclear radiation — from agencies across the federal government and store it in the salt beds 2,150 feet beneath the surface near Carlsbad.

The proposal would expand the source of the waste but not the type or grade — it would be the same as the DOE waste already accepted at WIPP.

And while one of Pearce’s primary concerns is protecting WIPP jobs by ensuring the plant has enough nuclear waste to process, one of the nation’s concerns should be storing this kind of waste in a centralized facility overseen by people with years of experience transporting, handling, storing and securing it in a safe place.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., co-sponsored a bill in 2011 identical to Pearce’s version. A spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., says he will study the proposal carefully if it makes it to the Senate “but … proposals like this to expand the mission will need very thorough vetting and acceptance throughout the state.”

They do. But this one is fairly straightforward, and nuclear waste must be stored safely.

Southeastern New Mexico is already known as “nuclear alley.” WIPP has been storing nuclear waste underground since 1999; the National Enrichment Facility near Hobbs has been processing uranium for nuclear power plants since 2008; the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has licensed a facility nearby to handle waste from the uranium fuel-making process; and Eddy and Lea counties and the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs plan to partner with French nuclear conglomerate Areva to bring a high-level nuclear waste storage facility to a site between the two cities.

Two years have passed since Pearce first proposed expanding the source — not the kind — of waste stored in WIPP. That waste still needs a home. It is incumbent on Congress to finally take up the issue of safe storage for the nation’s nuclear waste.

Our congressional delegation should get on board.

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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