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Editorial: NM, U.S. need unified front on nuclear waste

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The drama of a split congressional delegation pales in comparison to the drama that could come from randomly stored nuclear waste. The U.S. Congress as well as New Mexico’s members should keep that top of mind.

Yes, it is unfortunate, as Journal Washington correspondent Michael Coleman points out in the Sunday Journal, that the Land of Enchantment’s duly elected representatives couldn’t text, dial, email or meet to discuss their disagreement on expanding sources of low-level plutonium-contaminated waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

It’s more unfortunate for residents in places across the country where federal nuclear waste isn’t stored in secure salt beds 2,150 feet beneath the surface, because the Senate stripped the proposal by Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., to bring that waste to WIPP out of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act.

Currently WIPP accepts only Department of Energy defense waste. Pearce’s plan would expand that to agencies across the federal government but keep the grade of waste the same: lower-level contaminated items such as gloves, clothing, tools and aprons.

In 2011 then-Rep./now Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., co-sponsored a bill identical to Pearce’s. And while Sen. Tom Udall’s concern that any expansion not “displace defense waste slated to be disposed of at WIPP” is a smart one, Pearce maintains there isn’t enough DOE defense waste to preserve WIPP jobs. Either way, the rest of the government waste has to go somewhere, and specifying whose waste takes priority doesn’t seem as insurmountable as finally opening Yucca Mountain.

Because of its atomic-oriented industries, southeastern New Mexico is already known as “nuclear alley.” It is home to professionals familiar with plutonium-contaminated waste. Ensuring the nation has safe storage of its federal nuclear waste while ensuring those trained to do just that have jobs seems like a bipartisan plan the state’s entire delegation should rally behind.

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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