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Editorial: Balking at fines won’t help DOE reach a nuke solution

The U.S. Department of Energy seems to have forgotten one very significant fact: New Mexico has willingly played host to the nation’s only underground, permanent nuclear waste dump for nearly 16 years.

And not only that, the state had expressed interest in expanding it until federal contractors through sloppy oversight allowed a major permit violation to occur.

A year ago on Valentine’s Day, radiation from a drum containing mixed radioactive waste in the 2,150-foot deep underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad made its way into surface air, contaminating nearly two dozen workers with low levels of radiation and indefinitely shutting down the repository, built at a cost of about $2 billion. WIPP says there were no serious health impacts.

This was an occurrence that the supposedly brightest minds said could virtually never happen, but it did.

And under the “you can’t make this up” category, one factor in the leak was the wrong word being written down when a Los Alamos National Laboratory team was deciding how to handle and package “difficult” waste for shipment to WIPP.

A note-taker mistakenly jotted down “an organic” instead of “inorganic,” thus leading to drums of discarded defense nuclear radioactive items being packed with organic kitty litter. It was one of those drums that leaked when a chemical reaction occurred between the kitty litter and nitrate salts in the barrels, according to a DOE’s Office of Inspector General’s report.

Astonishingly, the note-taker’s mistake was never caught and no high-level scientist with the right expertise was ever involved in the review process.

The lab and its contractor might have saved U.S. taxpayers many millions of dollars by hiring a few sharp-eyed proofreaders and/or fact-checkers. It’s estimated it could cost a half billion dollars to clean up the dump and get it reopened, which could take years.

An arrogant Obama administration Energy Department seems to be ignoring the fact that the agreement that allowed WIPP to open also allows the state to fine the DOE in the event of violations. But the DOE, which oversees both LANL and WIPP, is refusing to pay at least $54 million in penalties the New Mexico Environment Department in December slapped on the federal government for numerous violations at LANL and at WIPP.

Why? The DOE maintains the state does not have the right to fine the federal government because … well, it’s the federal government, and feds trump states when it comes to which has the last say – although the DOE has paid fines to the state before.

Now, the DOE is attempting to hold LANL’s cleanup funding hostage. The DOE wants to deduct the $37 million that NMED fined LANL for its role in the WIPP leak from the $185 million LANL is budgeted to receive next fiscal year for ongoing efforts to clean up decades of contamination from nuclear weapons work. The state also fined WIPP $17 million.

NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn in a prepared comment Friday said: “Essentially, DOE is threatening to punish states by doing less cleanup work if states attempt to hold it accountable for violating federal and state environmental laws.”

The DOE claims the state “improperly imposed penalties for violations which did not occur” and that the fines are “grossly disproportionate” to those levied against other entities.

The state is considering an additional $100 million or more in fines against LANL. And that might not even be the end of them.

It would behoove the DOE to quit poisoning the well when it doesn’t have another option for disposing of this kind of waste underground. Don’t expect the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada to take up the slack. Thanks to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Yucca has been taken off the table after $15 billion was spent on its construction.

WIPP is the only solution to at least part of the nuclear waste disposal dilemma, and New Mexico is the only backyard that so far has been willing to step up and put the nation’s interests first by hosting it.

So the DOE should start paying up and playing fair with the only game in town.

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.