By Michael Coleman, Albuquerque Journal, NM
WASHINGTON – U.S. House appropriators on Tuesday matched President Barack Obama’s $220 million budget request for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant – and approved potentially $120 million more – to help get the nuclear waste repository operating again.
The budget approved by the House Energy and Water Appropriation Subcommittee would allow the National Nuclear Security Administration to divert up to $120 million of surplus from NNSA’s employee pension funds to offset the looming WIPP expenditures. However, there is no guarantee that amount of money would be available. In the 2013 fiscal year, the pension fund had a surplus of just $52 million.
The Department of Energy has been investigating what caused the lid of at least one drum to crack open at WIPP outside Carlsbad in February. Radiation leaked from the deep underground repository into the environment on Feb. 14 in quantities deemed unharmful to public health. WIPP has been closed to shipments of legacy nuclear waste from sites around the country since early February. A set of drums from Los Alamos is the focus of the investigation.
Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat and member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told the Journal that the House vote was an important signal that Congress will find the money to reopen WIPP, but that he was “not celebrating yet.” The appropriation bill still has to go through the Senate.
“There is no guarantee these dollars will materialize, because they are based on excess pensions being available,” Udall said. “NNSA sets aside funding to pay pensions, but in many years the money set aside is more than the payments that are required. If the past is any guide, realistically, it won’t be $120 million.”
Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., hailed Tuesday’s vote as “vital to getting WIPP reopened safely and keeping our friends and family working in Carlsbad.” Pearce wrote the committee on Monday urging extra funding for the WIPP site.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees WIPP, has not said how much it would cost to fix the damage and reopen the site. Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican who chairs the House energy appropriations subcommittee, said Tuesday the additional $120 million approved as part of the 2015 energy and water spending bill would “cover costs to get the facility up and running again.”
The Senate has not yet considered the 2015 spending bill for federal energy and water projects. Udall said he is pressing the NNSA for a solid figure of what it will cost to reopen WIPP so he can make a forceful presentation in an upcoming Senate appropriations hearing.
A telephone recording at the NNSA press office said no one was available to take media calls Tuesday. Phone messages and emails from the Journal were unreturned.
Don Hancock of the Southwest Research Information Center told the Journal that the NNSA doesn’t know how much it will cost to reopen WIPP safely and questioned if the amount approved Tuesday would be enough, even if it becomes available.
“They don’t know how much contamination there is, and they don’t know what the cleanup standard is,” Hancock said, adding that the standard is unclear and unwritten in WIPP policies or law, because the incident “was never supposed to happen.”