WASHINGTON – The U.S. House late Thursday approved a $34 billion spending bill that would provide money to help reopen the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, but it would rely at least in part on excess money in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s pension fund.
The bill, which also includes money for Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories, as well as Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers projects, passed 253-170. All three of New Mexico’s U.S. House members voted in favor.
The bill contains $236 million for WIPP operations in fiscal year 2015, plus a possible addition of $120 million to repair damage that has kept the nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad closed since mid-February. The extra $120 million would be taken from excess pension payments at the NNSA, but the measure also contains language to ensure WIPP spending would not affect existing pension payments.
Still, members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation are wary of tapping the pension fund at all, even its excess payments.
“I am concerned about language in the bill that will weaken pension plans for NNSA employees,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., in a statement to the Journal. “We need to provide funding to restore operations at WIPP – as well as clean up waste at LANL – while fulfilling the obligation to NNSA employees. We should not provide for one priority at the expense of the other.”
Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, persuaded the Senate energy and water subcommittee last month to approve spending $323 million on WIPP’s fiscal 2015 budget, an amount that is about $102 million above President Barack Obama’s request.
But the money in the Senate bill would be appropriated outright and is not contingent on the availability of excess NNSA pension funds, which are not guaranteed to materialize. That bill has not passed the full Senate.
“Tom believes it’s a very good sign that the House has identified funding for WIPP in its appropriations bill, though it would be ideal to have a solid funding amount in the House bill as well as the Senate’s,” Udall spokeswoman Jen Talhelm said. “As the process moves forward, he will continue to educate members of the Senate and the House about the importance of fully funding WIPP for our national security and New Mexico’s economy.”
WIPP has been closed to shipments of weapons-related nuclear waste from sites around the country since early February. A set of drums containing waste from Los Alamos is the focus of the investigation. Some of those drums leaked radioactive waste.