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Editorial: Another WIPP delay spells more tax dollars wasted

Getting the shuttered Waste Isolation Pilot Plant back to full operation anytime in the near future looks dubious, with missed deadlines attributable to the usual culprits: ineptness and bungling.

Operations at WIPP, the nation’s only underground repository for mixed radioactive waste from Cold War-era nuclear weapons work, have been curtailed and the site closed to shipments after two accidents in February 2014, an underground truck fire and a radiation leak, at the site near Carlsbad.

Investigations found lax oversight, errors and a poor safety culture at WIPP and at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where a waste-containing drum was packed with materials that caused a chemical reaction and led to the radiation release.

Delays in reopening have been numerous as the U.S. Department of Energy and its WIPP contractor struggle to address safety and maintenance issues and to figure out how to clean and reopen the site. The latest delay involves a new ventilations system needed to maintain adequate air circulation underground.

A Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report says a supplemental system “is not required for startup of waste disposal operations and could be problematic for emergency egress following an underground fire.”

Well that’s great news now that tax dollars have been used to partially install the system, estimated to cost between $4 million and $7 million.

Meanwhile, an interim system is months behind schedule after components were damaged en route to WIPP. It’s expected to come on line early next year, but the DOE has backed off its March 2016 target for resuming some operations at the site.

So while the delays pile up, so do cleanup and reopening costs, which may exceed $500 million.

With bumbling progress like this, it remains to be seen if WIPP will ever reopen.

If WIPP and LANL contractors had done a better job of following protocols and rules, the radiation release would not have occurred. Nothing says government incompetence like overregulating and then not following up to make sure those rules are being followed.

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.