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Editorial: Holding off on WIPP permit changes is wise

As workers prepare to re-enter the underground portion of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, the New Mexico Environment Department is putting off consideration of revising the nuclear waste repository’s permit request to open additional underground storage areas and make other changes.
WIPP, the nation’s only underground storage site for transuranic U.S. defense nuclear waste, has been closed for more than a month after two safety breaches — an underground truck fire Feb. 5 and a radiation leak Feb. 14 that contaminated at least 17 workers above ground and closed the salt repository a half-mile below ground. There were no workers underground at the time of the leak, and officials have said the level of contamination of workers was low and is not expected to pose a health threat. The Valentine’s Day leak released minute amounts of radioactive plutonium and americium above ground.
At this point, it’s unclear what caused the radiation leak, and it’s unknown what the underground contamination levels are. Before workers can be sent back into the salt beds to try to determine what happened, WIPP has to get approval of two safety plans. Currently one has been approved.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which is investigating the incidents, said this week that WIPP was unprepared for emergency responses in both cases and called WIPP’s initial response to the leak “unsatisfactory.” A Department of Energy team earlier said its investigation of the truck fire turned up serious operational and safety problems.
This week N.M. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich announced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will send mobile air monitoring units to WIPP to conduct independent tests and help respond to questions from the community about safety.
Before the leak, a radiation incident at WIPP was considered virtually impossible and WIPP was being discussed for storage of lower-level waste from agencies other than the DOE. In withdrawing WIPP’s permit request, state Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said the department and the public need more information about the radiation leak to make informed decisions about the permit.
Putting the permit modification on hold is the right call. It makes no sense to approve more nuclear waste for the repository when already approved WIPP shipments are on hold and no one knows what caused the radiation breach.
However, answers are needed soon to prevent a reoccurrence, and before WIPP reopens.

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.