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U.S. Energy chief backs WIPP, B-61

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

WASHINGTON – U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Wednesday offered strong assurances for New Mexico’s ongoing role in the nation’s nuclear weapons complex, vowing to reopen the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad within a year and to continue work on the B-61 bomb even in the event of a severe budget crunch.

The energy secretary’s comments during a hearing of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee came a day after President Barack Obama signed a memorandum directing the Department of Energy to develop separate repositories for waste generated from nuclear power plants and weapons. WIPP stores transuranic waste from nuclear weapons.

In February 2014, a waste drum packaged at Los Alamos National Laboratory and shipped to WIPP leaked and the radioactive release forced the repository to close indefinitely. Department of Energy officials have said it could take years and more than a half-billion dollars to get the waste dump fully operational again. Moniz elaborated on the time line Wednesday, while stressing WIPP’s importance to the nation.

“Bringing this facility back online is a very high priority and we believe we are on schedule to resume operations in about a year,” Moniz told the subcommittee, which included Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

A day earlier, during a speech at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, Moniz also commented on the WIPP timeline.

“It will take almost certainly at least two years to get into full-scale operation as we have to address and implement new ventilation systems,” Moniz said. “I cannot say how high a priority it is to get WIPP reopened and operating. In general terms, it is critical for everything we do in geologic disposal of nuclear materials.”

Moniz also said the Carlsbad community has been “a tremendous partner” in the effort to re-open the facility. DOE is currently in negotiations over $54 million in fines the state Environment Department has levied against the federal government in connection with the WIPP leak. Carlsbad officials are concerned about DOE’s position that the fines would have to be paid out of the budgets of WIPP and LANL.

“We very much would like to be able to resolve this with the governor and the New Mexico environmental department,” Moniz said. “We are very committed and we are very encouraged. I would say the discussions are going along at a very professional level and I’m hopeful we’ll be able to resolve this.”

“Our goal has always been to ensure the safe operation of these critical DOE facilities in New Mexico,” said Michael Lonergan, spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez. “Our continuing discussions with the DOE senior team have been productive.”

The Obama administration’s 2016 budget proposal requests $243 million for WIPP, about $77 million less than the repository will get this year as it works to recover operations.

B-61

Udall has sought to maintain funding levels for refurbishing the B-61 nuclear bomb, with work being done at Sandia National Labortatories, LANL and elsewhere. Extending the life of the bomb, one of the oldest and most versatile weapons in the nation’s nuclear arsenal, is also a high priority, Moniz said. The government is now spending upwards of $8 billion on that program, with much of the work in recent years being managed at Sandia.

But with congressional budget battles heating up again, the prospect of a so-called budget sequester – or across-the-board spending caps – is looming large over the nation’s defense complex. Moniz said a new sequester would create immense budget challenges for the National Nuclear Security Administration, but that the B-61 would likely be spared.

“The B-61, we would try to probably hold that, but then the cruise missile would have to get pushed out substantially, as we have already pushed out other parts of the stockpile refurbishment,” he said.

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