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Editorial: WIPP may be best place for weapons-grade waste

There are some important details that don’t quite make the talking points of what to do with the nation’s nuclear waste, those being:

It has to go somewhere, most of where it is now is not good or safe or responsible, and New Mexicans have offered the only permanent solution.

The nation’s more than 70,000 metric tons of used reactor fuel is now kept in temporary facilities in 39 states – some sites adjacent to rivers or on top of water tables. The nation’s 55 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium is kept in bunkers at the Energy Department’s Pantex warhead assembly-disassembly plant outside Amarillo, Texas, and in an old reactor building at the Savannah River Site.

Those aren’t permanent solutions, and the nation’s $15 billion permanent plan, Yucca Mountain, remains the largest, most expensive and emptiest parking garage ever. A close second is the $4 billion incomplete “mixed oxide” fuel, or MOX, facility in South Carolina that would convert the plutonium for use in commercial nuclear power plants. Since its designation in a 2000 arms-control agreement with Russia, the price tag for the MOX facility has ballooned from $1.5 billion to between $7 billion and $30 billion.

So it is important not to blindly follow former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s lead in dismissing the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant as a final resting place for diluted weapons-grade plutonium in favor of a MOX plan that may never happen. MOX was approved when Richardson was U.S. Energy secretary, though now even his former employer, DOE, is looking at storage alternatives including WIPP.

That is likely in part because of the increasing MOX construction price tag, in part because no utility has stepped up to say it will use the MOX fuel, and in part because while WIPP was shuttered after a 2014 truck fire and drum radiation release, there has been serious, ongoing scrutiny to ensure its policies, procedures and contractors are on track.

And it is likely also in great part because southeastern New Mexico has become home to nuclear experience and expertise, with WIPP, the $4 billion Urenco USA uranium enrichment plant, a proposed $100 million International Isotopes plant to process spent uranium from Urenco, a proposed $280-million-plus Holtec International Inc. underground storage site for used reactor fuel, and a proposed spent-fuel storage facility run by Waste Control Specialists and French firm AREVA Inc. just across the Texas state line.

As Richardson cautions that DOE will make the WIPP facility a high-level waste dump, Carlsbad leaders are welcoming the idea of downblending the nation’s weapons-grade plutonium with inert materials so it can be permanently disposed of at WIPP.

Mayor Dale Janway has written to NIMBY Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, that “if non-proliferation is your intent, then the clear path forward is disposal in WIPP. This is a national decision, we recognize that. But we are a community of taxpayers, within a state of taxpayers, and we volunteered to host a defense-only deep geologic waste disposal facility that permanently removes risk from the biosphere.”

Southeastern New Mexico has done more than any other community, company or government leader to offer a safe, long-term storage solution to the tens of thousands of metric tons of nuclear toys the nation has left lying around. Its weapons-grade proposal deserves serious consideration and, if approved, remuneration.

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.