Nuclear waste storage should be top priority


That’s essentially the tolerance level for radiation escaping from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, according to N.M. Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn.

WIPP, near Carlsbad, is the nation’s only deep underground repository for U.S. nuclear defense waste.

WIPP operators are scrambling to figure out what caused radioactive plutonium and americium to be detected on Feb. 14 by an air monitoring station after an underground radiation alert. As it’s being investigated, no one is going down into the 16-square mile repository.

WIPP is the final destination for transuranic waste such as contaminated gloves and tools sealed in containers and placed in underground rooms carved out of salt beds about half a mile beneath the earth’s surface. Commercial waste from nuclear power plants and high-level waste such as spent fuel rods are not allowed.

An independent analysis by the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center detected elevated levels of radioactive plutonium and americium at an air monitoring station about a half mile from the facility. However, the levels were lower than what the EPA considers unsafe or actionable.

In recent years, there has been interest in expanding WIPP’s role to accept other government nuclear waste, some of which is stored in leaking tanks at the Hanford Site in Washington state. As the rest of the nation has simply turned its back on the problem, some New Mexico leaders are open to the idea of storing more nuclear waste 2,150 feet under the surface in a place designed for the job.

Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican, introduced a bill to expand WIPP’s scope, and Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, is open to “legislative options based on science and data.”

And while the recent discovery is concerning, this is a technical problem that needs to be figured out and fixed.

Nuclear waste is a reality. Its safe storage should be a top national priority. With Yucca Mountain, Nev., off the table, WIPP is one of few options, if not the best one.

When to reopen WIPP should be based on science, not emotions. So should the decision on an expanded mission.

— Albuquerque Journal

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