ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — With the government's only permanent nuclear waste dump shuttered indefinitely by back-to-back accidents, officials are making plans to ship radioactive waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory to rural West Texas.
The Department of Energy and the operator of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico say they have signed an agreement with Waste Control Specialists to truck the waste to its site in Andrews County.
The agreement will help Los Alamos meet a June deadline for getting the last of thousands of barrels of plutonium-contaminated clothing, tools, rags and other debris off its northern New Mexico campus before wildfire season hits its peak.
The waste, which is shipped and stored in huge sealed canisters, would come back to New Mexico for final disposal once the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant reopens.
"We are pleased that WCS is in a position to provide temporary storage for this waste while the WIPP is shutdown," said Waste Control Specialists President Rod Baltzer. "This will allow the Los Alamos National Laboratory to meet its goal of having this material removed by this summer so it can no longer be threatened by wildfires. WCS has never had a wildfire because all surrounding areas are covered with asphalt and caliche roadways. In addition, the waste will be in storage facilities that have sprinkler system, and in the event of an emergency, WCS has its own fire truck on site."
But not everyone applauded the plan. Watchdog Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group says that shipping the waste twice increases the chance of an accident because it has to be loaded and unloaded twice. And he notes that "there is essentially no danger of wildfire, the surrounding vegetation having been burned."
The West Texas site has in the past taken some less toxic waste from Los Alamos, but the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the nation's only permanent repository for low-level radioactive waste from nuclear weapons facilities.
Waste Control Specialists is licensed to take radioactive materials such as uranium, plutonium and thorium from commercial power plants, academic institutions and medical schools, as well as some DOE waste. It is also the burial ground for dirt from a Hudson River Superfund site that's tainted with PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls.
Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for the plant, said federal officials are working with regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to make sure that storing the Los Alamos waste is allowable under its permits.