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DOE speaks up on recertification

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — U.S. Department of Energy officials told a public meeting Wednesday that a radiation release last year at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant should have no bearing on whether the federal Environmental Protection Agency recertifies the long-term performance of the repository.

Russell Patterson, the DOE’s certification compliance manager for WIPP, also said that the agency doesn’t require EPA recertification to resume operations at the low-level radioactive waste repository.

WIPP, a deep geologic repository near Carlsbad, has remained closed since a February 2014 underground fire and a radiation release. Nearly two dozen employees were contaminated with low levels of plutonium and americium. DOE officials have said WIPP could reopen in a limited way by March 2016. Cleanup is expected to cost $500 million.

About 50 people attended a meeting Wednesday at the Albuquerque Embassy Suites when EPA accepted public comment as part of WIPP’s recertification process, which is required every five years.

Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center, a WIPP watchdog group, contends DOE’s own recovery plan for reopening WIPP calls for the completion of EPA’s recertification review. But Patterson responded that the statement was a mistake and that DOE has authority to reopen the repository without recertification.

Patterson said DOE must show that WIPP will remain safe for 10,000 years after the repository is closed to get EPA recertification.

“No aspect of the fire or the burst drum affect any assumptions used in the long-term performance of the repository,” Patterson said. “The ability of the repository to isolate waste for a very long period of time has not been affected.”

Jon Edwards, director of the EPA’s radiation protection division, said the New Mexico Environment Department must approve a resumption of operations at WIPP, and that EPA “expects to be part of the process.” But Edwards and other EPA officials declined to say whether EPA approval is required to reopen the repository.

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