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Editorial: WIPP reopening welcome

WIPP is back in business, and that’s good news for New Mexico, the nation and the world.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad has been closed for nearly three years after a fire on an underground salt hauling truck and an unrelated incident in which an improperly packed drum of nuclear waste burst, releasing radiation underground and minute amounts above ground.

On Wednesday, two pallets of low-level radioactive waste were permanently placed in one of the disposal rooms in the underground salt mine about 2,000 feet below the surface. Resumption of work comes just a few days after the goal of reopening by the end of 2016.

While two pallets is a small start, officials say they want to move slowly and cautiously. That is important, because safety must come first if the repository is to be functional over the long term. A November roof collapse left the far south end of the mine closed and some areas restricted or prohibited. Workers have been securing the roof to prevent more collapses.

WIPP was designed to accept shipments of Cold War-era waste from U.S. nuclear weapons work. That includes contaminated gloves, tools, clothing and other materials. The plan is that once it is full, the plant will be closed and eventually the salt formations will safely encapsulate the waste forever.

Kudos for getting this important facility back in operation. The state Environment Department in particular gets points for its aggressive oversight. Slack management and safety practices at both Los Alamos National Laboratory and WIPP cost more than a half billion taxpayer dollars – so far – for the cleanup.

The state slapped the U.S. Department of Energy with $74 million in penalties for the radiation leak, the truck fire and the mishandling of waste at LANL. The penalty was the largest ever levied against the federal government.

Moving forward, officials are pledging a new emphasis on safety and training and better emergency response capabilities. That’s a critical goal, because WIPP is the nation’s only deep geological repository for nuclear waste.

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.