Regional Coalition cracks WIPP

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County: Local officials gain insight into endgame for nuclear waste cleanup

By Arin McKenna

The Regional Coalition of  Los Alamos National Laboratory Communities took a field trip to Southern New Mexico last week. Fourteen members toured the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and met with Carlsbad and Eddy County officials to discuss mutual concerns.


“They really rolled out the red carpet for us. The mayor of Carlsbad, Dale Janway, was extremely appreciative. He had a dinner that recognized Los Alamos for taking the lead in putting the coalition together,” Council Chair Sharon Stover said.

The trip was enhanced by County Administrator Harry Burgess’ close ties to Carlsbad. Burgess was city administrator of Carlsbad for six years before accepting his position here.

“The City of Carlsbad obviously still has a great deal of confidence in Harry,” Stover said. City officials even let Burgess drive the boat for a tour down the Pecos River.

The highlight of the trip was a very detailed tour of the WIPP facility.

The coalition watched trucks arrive with LANL waste shipments, saw the “remote” waste area (waste handled robotically instead of with human contact), then descended 2,150 feet and took golf carts into the bowels of the salt mine to see where the waste is deposited. Stover said it was like being in an Indiana Jones movie.

“We saw the air monitoring, the ground water monitoring, just the whole environmental monitoring there,” Stover said. “You felt safe as you were going down this very dark shaft in an elevator, and then in one of these carts. Seeing how they packaged the TRU waste, seeing how it’s stored. You just really came to appreciate this one-of-a-kind facility.”

“The whole process of what happens to the waste is just pretty amazing. Just the fact of how they developed the site and the salt mine into that storage facility–it’s quite amazing,” said Deputy County Administrator Brian Bosshardt, who joined Stover and Burgess on the trip.

“We’ve been spending so much time with the county and with the Regional Coalition in terms of the cleanup of the various sites, to complete that loop and see where it’s going and what they have to do here to complete the cleanup — it was pretty eye opening.”

Seeing the WIPP operation was only one of the coalition’s objectives.

“The purpose of the trip was to see WIPP and discuss with the local elected officials what their needs are and strategies for our mutual efforts as far as federal funding goes,” Burgess said. “Because when we go to D.C. to talk about things, just knowing what it entails gives us a little better perspective to talk about issues as far as removing waste from here and getting it down there.”

“You build these relationships, and it’s good to have that connection, particularly with the environmental cleanup,” Stover said.

One particular piece of information really hit home for Stover.

“They had a 10-year period after it was built before they could open it. They said it cost a billion dollars to build, but it took another billion just to get it open,” Stover said. “It just reinforced the importance to me of how valuable the Regional Coalition is and the important role it plays. It’s so important to get together and speak with one voice.”

Burgess was interested in discussions about WIPP’s potential to process other forms of nuclear waste.

“At present, WIPP’s mission is devoted solely to defense-generated TRU waste. So it’s a very specific classification of waste. There are other potential uses for WIPP, although their current mission, as defined by Congress, is limited to that one waste stream,” Burgess said.

“But there are some other defense related wastes and legacy wastes that are sitting up here as well that need a home. And there’s no identified home for that waste. There’s nuclear fuel across the country that has never had an identified home, especially now that Yucca Mountain has been defunded.”

The tour included a visit to one of only four “hot cells” in the nation.

“This is a hot cell that has never been used. It was originally built down at WIPP because they intended to take different waste streams when it was first constructed, including the potential for spent fuel rods. That would have been the area that would have handled that type of material,” Burgess said. “It is an expensive facility to build, and because the mission has changed, it’s one thing that sits down there unused at present.”

Community support for the project also left a strong impression.

“The fact that they have strong community support for WIPP and an expansion of its mission gave those elected officials something to think about as to how they might do their own duty, part of which is educating their constituents about the impact of the lab on the local communities, not only from a cleanup perspective or concerns about waste, but also about their mission, their budget and their economic impact upon the region,” Burgess said.

“One of my takeaways is that the community of Carlsbad, as well as the partnership with Eddy County, is extremely proud of the work that WIPP has done,” Stover said. “And they want to answer any kind of questions about this really one-of-a-kind facility. They said, ‘bring more people down so we can continue to tell our story and educate folks.’ ”