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Editorial: Energy secretary finally states the obvious at WIPP

After months of the congressional delegation and the Gov. Susana Martinez administration asking, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz made time last week to visit the nation’s only underground nuclear waste disposal facility – still closed after two serious safety breaches in February. It may be several years before it reopens.

At a town hall in Carlsbad, Moniz attempted to reassure Waste Isolation Pilot Plant workers and members of the community of how important the facility really is to the U.S. government. Well, the people of southeastern New Mexico knew that, but the U.S. Department of Energy hasn’t been acting like it is convinced or it would have made sure:

  • That the 29-year-old salt mining truck that caught fire on Feb. 5 in the 2,150-foot-deep mine had been properly maintained and had a working fire suppression system.
  • That its Carlsbad Field Office had corrected long-running problems related to nuclear safety, maintenance and emergency management.
  • That it had provided better oversight of the field office and the WIPP contractor.

In other words, that it had paid better attention.

The cherry on top of this sundae of neglect was that the DOE gave the WIPP contractor a nearly $2 million bonus for exemplary performance just five days after the truck fire and just four days before the radiation leak, even though investigations into the incidents show deficiencies that go back years.

The safety breaches represent unprecedented warning signs. When it comes to the federal government, just what does it take not to get a bonus?

All along, DOE officials blindly held that a radiation leak couldn’t happen, putting the odds of such an accident at one chance in 10,000 to one in 1 million during any given year of WIPP operations.


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Now nearly six months after the Feb. 15 radiation leak, Moniz tells New Mexico, “This is really an absolutely core facility for the country,” getting it back online is “a very high priority” and “safety has to be the driver” of that recovery.

Indeed. Secretary Moniz should make sure that happens – and that oversight is given a higher priority.

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.