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Pension protection added to WIPP bill

WASHINGTON – The pensions of National Nuclear Security Administration workers would get an extra measure of protection under an amendment adopted Wednesday by U.S. House appropriators aiming to reopen the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

The committee approved $236 million for WIPP operations in FY 2015, plus a possible addition of $120 million to repair damage that has kept the nuclear waste repository closed since mid-February. The extra $120 million would be taken from excess pension payments at the National National Nuclear Security Administration. But before the vote, the committee adopted an amendment by Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., that would ensure pensioner protections.

“This direction (the spending bill allowing pensions fund to be diverted to WIPP repairs) shall not be interpreted to permit the transfer of funds already contributed to a pension plan or reduce payments into any contractor employee pension plan below statutory or contractual requirements,” the amendment says.

It was adopted unanimously.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, said he was committed to reopening WIPP and protecting worker pensions.

“It’s a high priority for me that WIPP is returned to full and safe operations as soon as possible,” Simpson said. “There are some misunderstandings regarding the funding source…concerns that it would adversely affect contributions made into the department’s contractor employee pension plans. I would like to assure members that this bill will meet all requirements for employees’ pensions, which are contractual obligations assumed by the department as part of its operations and maintenance contracts.”

On Tuesday, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., told the Journal that lab officials had voiced concern about the House using pension funds to pay for WIPP’s reopening. Fleischmann’s amendment was an effort to mitigate those worries. The Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday approved $102 million in extra money for WIPP to help the waste site reopen. The House and Senate will eventually work out a compromise between their differing budget amounts.

The Department of Energy has been investigating what caused the lid of at least one drum to crack open at WIPP 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.

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