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DOE will provide WIPP update next week

Zack Ponce | Carlsbad Current-Argus (Carlsbad, N.M.)

CARLSBAD — It appears the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is far from reopening, and the latest update of recovery operations will be presented during a state legislative meeting next week.

Dana Bryson, the U.S. Department of Energy Carlsbad Field Office deputy manager, will present the latest status report of underground cleanup at WIPP 10:30 a.m. Tuesday during the New Mexico Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee meeting at the Western Commerce Bank Community Room, 3010 National Parks Highway, and the public is encouraged to attend.

New Mexico State Sen. Carrol Leavell, R-Jal, said it looks like it will be another 18 months to two years before WIPP begins accepting transuranic nuclear waste, according to recent talks Leavell has had with DOE officials.

“Everything seems to be moving well, but it’s moving much slower than I’ve anticipated,” Leavell said.

WIPP, located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, opened in 1999 and disposes transuranic waste, commonly referred to as “TRU,” into the surrounding Permian-age salt bedrock 2,150 feet below ground. Most of the waste WIPP receives is primarily low-level, solid materials such as discarded tools and cloths used in the manufacturing of Cold War-era nuclear weapons.

The DOE announced last week that workers will soon resume rock bolting activities underground to provide the necessary maintenance to ensure a safe and stable condition in the salt mines as the federal agency continues to investigate the cause of the Feb. 5 radiation leak that caused the current shutdown.

Related: Energy Sec. Moniz asserts continued support of Carlsbad, WIPP

According to photographic evidence made public by the DOE, it appears a chemical reaction caused an explosion inside one of the waste drums. The explosion melted through portions of the drum, and the incident triggered a small release of americium and plutonium into the outside air about half a mile from the facility.

New Mexico State Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, said she wished some of the bureaucratic delays could be prevented with the DOE investigation, but overall is encouraged by the way the agency has handled the situation.

“There are things that just have to be done in a very methodical fashion … I’d like to see things moving more quickly, but I’m not going to interfere with what they think is their process.”

The state’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee is comprised of 12 full-time members and 13 advisory members from both the House and Senate. The committee provides oversight of all hazardous materials disposal and any other potential environmental impacts from production.

State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, chairs the committee and Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, and Rep. Bill Gray, R-Artesia, round out the four Southeastern New Mexico legislators along with Leavell and Brown who sit on the committee.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for people to see how we work, and I hope many people from the community attend,” Brown said.

The committee will also hear updates on the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the New Mexico Department of Environment, WIPP monitoring, and environmental response on Tuesday. On Wednesday, speakers will provide updates on new transmission lines in the area from Xcel Energy and the status of the Carlsbad brine well.

Reporter Zack Ponce can be reached at (575) 689-7402.


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