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House passes Pearce amendment to expand WIPP’s role

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The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad would be asked to ramp up its disposal of federally owned nuclear waste under an amendment by Rep. Steve Pearce to the National Defense Authorization Act passed by U.S. House.

The amendment would allow WIPP to accept transuranic nuclear waste from new government sources in addition to the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons defense programs for which WIPP was established. Transuranic waste includes material exposed to nuclear radiation, such as tools, clothing and gloves.

Pearce’s amendment, which mirrors a bill the southern New Mexico Republican introduced in 2011 and again earlier this year, was adopted by the House last week in a voice vote before the Republican-led chamber passed the defense authorization bill.

It must also be adopted by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“Keep in mind that the most important thing is getting this mess off the ground,” Pearce said. “It’s public safety across the country. In some places, it’s in cardboard boxes with groundwater right underneath it.”

Pearce also has said the bill would support WIPP jobs in southern New Mexico.

Asked what new sources would add waste to WIPP under the legislation, Pearce said, “We’re just saying there are other agencies in the U.S. government that have generated the same sort of waste; let’s deposit it down there, too.”

Facility concerns

The move to add new sources of waste for WIPP comes less than a month after a Department of Energy inspector general’s report concluded WIPP has fallen short of goals to manage its current nuclear weapons waste mission. The report also warned of the facility’s limited capacity for waste with higher radioactivity that requires special handling.

WIPP “was not on track to meet its goal to dispose of 90 percent of the department’s legacy (transuranic) waste by the end of FY 2015,” the May 28 report said.

“Additionally, without further modifications to the repository or existing waste disposal practices, WIPP may not have the capacity for disposal of the current (higher radioactivity waste) inventory,” it said.

Pearce said concerns about WIPP capacity should not deter the effort to open the facility to new sources of waste.

“Until we reach maximum capacity, I don’t think we should delay the process for speculation,” Pearce said. “If it becomes an issue, we talk about it.”

Senate support

New Mexico’s senators, both Democrats, stopped short of endorsing Pearce’s proposal.

The amendment is not included in an early Senate draft of the defense authorization bill, although the language could be added before a floor vote or during the conference committee between the House and Senate that negotiates differences.

For Sen. Tom Udall, a more detailed review from local stakeholders and the Department of Energy is needed before permanent changes are made at WIPP, Udall spokeswoman Jennifer Talhelm said.

“Sen. Udall is focused on securing the funding to ensure WIPP can fulfill its mission safely and securely,” Talhelm said. “Given WIPP’s history, proposals like this, which expand WIPP’s mission, deserve very close scrutiny throughout the state.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich’s office, meanwhile, would not say whether the senator supports or opposes sending new sources of waste to WIPP.

“Sen. Heinrich supports WIPP’s mission and believes it is scientifically the right location to safely dispose of transuranic waste that meets the waste acceptance criteria,” spokeswoman Whitney Potter said.

Amendment protest

The approach to change the sources of nuclear waste at WIPP via amendment to the defense authorization bill passed by the House has prompted some protest from critics who say the maneuver allowed a controversial proposal to go forward without warranted House committee hearings.

California Rep. Henry Waxman, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Monday that allowing Pearce’s amendment to bypass his committee sends a signal to communities that agree to host nuclear waste facilities that “Congress may unilaterally change that agreement at any time and without any public hearings or consideration by the committee of jurisdiction.”

Don Hancock of the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center and a longtime observer of WIPP, said the lack of committee hearings allowed the proposal to go forward without any account of how much new waste might be routed for WIPP.

“It potentially is any waste that DOE might ever decide to own and rename could be included, so that could be a significant amount of stuff. We don’t know,” Hancock said. “There’s never been a public hearing on this. There’s never been any other kind of document that I’m aware of that tries to specify what it is and what it isn’t.”

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