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Energy chief says WIPP to reopen by year’s end

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

WASHINGTON – U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Tuesday that the Obama administration will reopen the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad by the end of 2016 and move ahead with plans to transfer diluted plutonium to the nuclear waste site within the next decade.

Moniz, discussing the Department of Energy’s 2017 budget proposal at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, said the DOE will scrap an unfinished plutonium recycling project called the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and instead work toward diluting and shipping the plutonium to WIPP as soon as 2023.

Meanwhile, Obama’s fiscal year 2017 budget request for Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories in New Mexico remained fairly static from his 2016 request. Although the president proposes a budget to fund the federal government, Congress makes final determinations on spending. Obama has proposed $1.9 billion for Sandia National Laboratories in 2017, up from $1.8 billion he asked Congress to spend on the lab in the current year. The 2017 Sandia request includes about $1.5 billion for weapons activities, which is consistent with current-year spending.


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Obama is asking Congress to spend $2.1 billion on Los Alamos in 2017, compared with the $1.9 billion he requested last year. The president’s 2017 request includes $1.5 billion for weapons work at LANL, almost $90 million more than his 2016 request for the lab. Moniz suggested that big budgets for weapons maintenance are a necessity.

“The nuclear security complex has been around for an awfully long time, and consequently we have major infrastructure challenges as we continue with the (nuclear) deterrent without testing,” Moniz said.

Previous proposals for new underground labs costing $2 billion to produce nuclear weapons triggers at Los Alamos are not addressed in the budget plan. The budget request includes $189 million to continue cleanup of decades’ worth of radioactive and hazardous materials at LANL, about the same as in recent years.

During his remarks in Washington, Moniz focused heavily on the DOE’s desire to get WIPP up and running, calling it “high priority.” The one-of-a-kind, deep underground nuclear waste repository outside Carlsbad has spent the past 24 months and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to recover from an accident involving a blown-out drum of waste that was shipped there from LANL in early 2014. The DOE’s budget includes $271 million for cleanup work at WIPP. Before its shutdown two years ago, WIPP’s operating budget was less than $160 million.

In a telephone press briefing, DOE Environmental Management Assistant Secretary Monica Regalbuto said a number of new operations are included, such as new safety rules and creation of emergency “safe havens” for WIPP workers. “The facility you are comparing to in the past is not the same as the facility of the future,” Regalbuto said.

At the same time, the U.S. government has been searching for ways to render useless 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium per an arms-control agreement signed with Russia in 2000. On Tuesday, Moniz said the Savannah River MOX project would cost as much as $40 billion to complete and “an additional half a billion per year for decades.”

“The reality is the MOX program … just does not look to be affordable,” Moniz said.

MOX – or mixed-oxide fuel — is a nuclear power reactor fuel made from a mix of plutonium and uranium. The U.S. Department of Energy had long planned to make experimental MOX fuel using plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons. Instead, Moniz said, the DOE will begin preparing plans to dilute the plutonium for disposal at New Mexico’s nuclear waste site.


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“We already have nearly 5 tons of diluted plutonium stored at WIPP,” Moniz said. “It is certainly technically less challenging (than the MOX process), and we believe is less than half the cost going forward, so we … have proposed to formally make that change.”

Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, sounded skeptical of the administration’s plan Tuesday.

“I’m extremely concerned about the cost overruns in the MOX program, and I think Congress should be asking some tough questions about how it’s being managed and ultimately whether it should be continued,” Udall said. “However, there are too many questions surrounding this issue for me to answer whether moving the plutonium intended for MOX to New Mexico is feasible.”

“Restoring WIPP to safe operation should be the priority before there is any further discussion of expanding WIPP’s mission to accept additional types of waste,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.

Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican whose district includes WIPP, seemed more receptive to the idea, while not openly embracing it.

“I appreciate the secretary’s continued commitment to WIPP, and look forward to working with him in the year to come on reopening WIPP,” Pearce said. “The first and only priority for everyone involved must remain reopening WIPP as safely, and effectively as possible. Once reopen, I fully expect WIPP to resume its mission disposing of transuranic waste from around the nation. Any and all transuranic material that meets WIPP’s standards should continue to be disposed of at the site. It is vital to the health and safety of the nation and New Mexico.”

Some in the Carlsbad area are enthusiastic about the idea and hope the estimated $400 million-a-year investment by DOE to transfer the plutonium to WIPP would mean jobs and a boost the local economy. But politicians in South Carolina, including Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, have vowed to fight the DOE decision. Graham has said it could require new negotiations with the Russians.

“I’m sure we’ll have a lively discussion about this in the Congress,” Moniz said on Tuesday.

Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program and administrator at Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, said Tuesday that he supports canceling the expensive MOX project in South Carolina but is not convinced that WIPP is the best home for the plutonium.

“I don’t agree that the surplus plutonium would fit into WIPP, unless transuranic waste that’s supposed to go to WIPP is instead left in Idaho, Washington, Tennessee and Los Alamos,” Hancock said. “It is important to resolve what wastes WIPP is for, if it reopens. If DOE wants to change the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act to expand WIPP for surplus plutonium or other wastes, it should be proposing that now.”

Moniz said DOE expects to “ramp up design work” at WIPP this year for eventual dilution and disposal of the weapons-grade plutonium.

“We really expect to get WIPP operating at the end of this year, resuming operations and ramping over a few years to full operations and then of course cleaning out the backlog that has been created by its shutdown for the last couple of years,” Moniz said. “That is a very, very high priority.”

Journal North editor Mark Oswald contributed to this report.