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Senate panel OKs funds to help WIPP reopen

WASHINGTON – Senate appropriators on Tuesday set aside an extra $102 million to help reopen the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, and unlike a similar House bill the legislation does not require the potential use of federal pension funds.

The Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee approved spending $323 million on WIPP’s FY 2015 budget, an amount that is about $102 million above President Barack Obama’s request. The additional money would be used to help get the nuclear waste repository, which has been shuttered since an early February safety incident, up and running again.

Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat and member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, as well as the subcommittee that voted Tuesday, said officials at the Department of Energy have told him it could take about $130 million above the president’s request to get the site reopened, but the Senate allocation was a good start.

A U.S. House subcommittee last week approved $120 million more than the president’s $220 million request for WIPP. But the subcommittee specified that, if needed, the money would be taken out of a National Nuclear Security Administration employee pension fund.


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Udall said Tuesday the Senate bill would provides”more reliable funds” than the House bill.

Eventually – possibly later this summer or fall – the House and Senate will work out a compromise on the FY 2015 spending allotment for WIPP and other energy projects

“I am concerned it (the additional House money) will not materialize because they anticipate funds from unspent pension payments,” Udall told the subcommittee, referring to the House bill. “The labs in New Mexico (some of whose employees rely on the NNSA pension fund in retirement) tell me they are concerned about taking pension funds to pay for WIPP recovery.

“If you start taking money away from that area then in the future you don’t have a pension fund, so you have to raid other areas to pay for that,” Udall added. “They are uncomfortable using unexpended pension funds on a regular basis.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, reminded Udall on Tuesday that his authority on the New Mexico issue would come in handy during negotiations with the House.

“We’re going to need your help,” she told Udall.

“I think we’re going to have to work with the House because they have a different approach on things,” Udall told the Journal after the hearing.

The Department of Energy has been investigating what caused the lid of at least one drum of radioactive waste to break open at WIPP, which is outside Carlsbad, in February. Radiation leaked from the deep underground repository into the environment on Feb. 14 in quantities deemed unharmful to public health.

WIPP has been closed to shipments of legacy nuclear waste from sites around the country since early February. A set of drums from Los Alamos is the focus of the investigation.