The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeast New Mexico is the nation’s only permanent storage site for waste from nuclear weapons work.
The repository is currently closed because of radiation contamination caused by a 2014 chemical reaction in a drum of waste shipped from Los Alamos National Laboratory. But when WIPP is reopened, the U.S. Department of Energy wants to send nearly seven tons of weapons-grade plutonium there to store safely away from rogue countries or terrorists.
Getting WIPP back on track is Job No. 1. The site is expected to partially reopen later this year, but it could be several years before the plutonium would be ready for shipping.
The plutonium is from foreign countries and has been declared surplus. But it conceivably could be used to produce nuclear weapons. It is stored now at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and would have to be diluted and packaged to meet WIPP’s storage criteria.
Under the federal law that created WIPP, the underground site carved out of ancient salt formations is authorized to accept transuranic waste, a byproduct of weapons work such as gloves and tools. The site is about half full, so there is space to accept the plutonium. Any potential changes to the agreement must make safety of workers, the community and the environment top priorities.
Southeastern New Mexico has welcomed the nuclear industry and considers WIPP and several commercial players important to its economy, so it makes sense that WIPP is considered for this important task. With the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada off the table, thanks to the NIMBY efforts of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Obama administration, there are few, if any, other viable options.
The DOE would have to ensure that the plutonium would meet the criteria set out in the law. And Congress might have to expand the site or amend the law to make it happen.
However, dealing with this dangerous supply of plutonium is a critical task that shouldn’t just be put off, like the problem of what to do with most other nuclear waste in this country. If WIPP is suitable, then Congress should consider expanding its use to safely accommodate the plutonium.
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.