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DOE chief emphasizes WIPP’s ‘high priority’

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is welcomed at the Carlsbad airport Monday as he arrives to visit the nearby Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and to talk with local officials about problems at the nuclear waste storage site. (Zack Ponce/Carlsbad Current-Argus)
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is welcomed at the Carlsbad airport Monday as he arrives to visit the nearby Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and to talk with local officials about problems at the nuclear waste storage site. (Zack Ponce/Carlsbad Current-Argus)
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LAS CRUCES – New Mexico’s deep geologic nuclear waste repository is a “high priority” for the country that must return to operations after being closed by a fire and radiation leak, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said during a Monday town hall in Carlsbad.

“Let me make no bones about it: WIPP has to come all the way back,” he said. “This is really an absolutely core facility for the country.”

In his first visit to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant as Cabinet secretary, Moniz heard from a range of stakeholders during meetings in both Santa Fe and Carlsbad, including Gov. Susana Martinez, senior managers of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the state Environment Department and Carlsbad residents, among others.

He is scheduled to tour WIPP today.

The Martinez administration had been asking for months for Moniz to pay WIPP a visit after two incidents in February – a mine fire and a radiation leak – closed the nation’s only deep underground repository for certain types of defense nuclear waste.

An investigation has revealed that a waste container from LANL overheated, cracking the lid.

Moniz told a crowd of about 150 that “a plausible picture” is emerging to explain what happened to cause the radiation leak, although the investigation continues. A recovery plan for the facility is expected late next month, he said.

He said “safety has to be the driver” of that recovery.

Two reports by an accident investigation board criticized the Department of Energy headquarters for not holding its Carlsbad Field Office accountable for correcting repeated, long-running problems related to nuclear safety, maintenance and emergency management, and for not providing adequate oversight of the field office or WIPP contractor.

Moniz, who took the lead of the DOE as secretary in May 2013, said, “We will continue to advocate for the resources needed. This is a very high priority.”

“There absolutely needs to be strong leadership right from headquarters down to the site,” said New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn in a telephone interview Monday.

The Carlsbad Current-Argus reported about a dozen Carlsbad residents gathered at the airport Monday to greet Moniz and show their support for WIPP, a significant employer in the area well before the current oil and gas boom heated up the local economy. WIPP employs about 1,000 people and is responsible for nearly 3,000 indirect jobs, according to the DOE.

In a meeting scheduled for late Monday with Moniz, Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said he planned to share residents’ desire “to make sure the site is reopened as safely and expeditiously as possible.”

The WIPP repository is carved from salt beds 2,150 feet below the surface, with sprawling underground panels to permanently dispose of radioactive remnants of the country’s nuclear defense program. The plant has been closed to shipments since a salt haul truck caught fire underground on Feb. 5. Nine days later, a drum of LANL nuclear waste overheated, cracking open the lid, and radiation leaked into the environment.

A team of DOE scientists is investigating what caused the leak, specifically how and why a hot reaction occurred in at least one drum. The team has been unable to replicate the reaction, either in computer models or in the laboratory.

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