Do you measure volume by A.) how big your glass is, or B.) how much is actually in it?
At the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, the answer has always been “A.” The U.S. Department of Energy is asking New Mexico to switch that to “B.”
That’s because WIPP, a series of underground salt caverns that has housed radioactive waste since 1999, is already more than half full using the current measurement method, which calculates the amount using the outermost containers, which may have smaller containers of waste within them. Switching to calculating volume using the innermost containers would mean WIPP is one-third full.
WIPP is capped at 6.2 million cubic feet of transuranic waste under the 1992 federal Land Withdrawal Act that authorized it. DOE argues that the current system means a lot of the volume counted toward the limit is just air.
And so it is right that the New Mexicans who live closest to WIPP will have the opportunity to air their concerns about the change later this month. Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, has said a hearing is unnecessary, but, if there has to be one, it should be in Carlsbad. Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Program at the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center and a longtime WIPP critic, has said any “technical testimony should be in Santa Fe” and maintains that DOE and the state Environment Department are aiming to “fast-track” the request.
Bigger concerns than whether trapped air counts as waste are the proposed mission creep that could bring the higher-level radioactive waste sitting around the nation to WIPP, and the fact that temporary storage of that higher-level waste at WIPP or the proposed Holtec interim storage facility nearby could become indefinite because the federal government has allowed Nevada’s Yucca Mountain to remain a $15 billion empty parking garage.
Nevertheless, the people who live near, and work in and around, WIPP deserve to be heard, and to have decision makers come to their community and explain, face to face, exactly what the changes mean.
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.