Saturday, February 22, 2014

WIPP Site Radiation Leak

A radiation leak was reported a week ago at the WIPP site.

The detection of above background levels of americium and plutonium was recorded by radiation detectors, both above ground near the facility perimeter, and below ground inside the facility close to the 2500 ft level.

DOE has closed the WIPP site until further notice, while it attempts to better understand the problem. Meanwhile, DOE says that there is no danger to the general public from the radiation release. A town hall meeting has been called for Monday, 24 February, 2014, in Carlsbad, NM to discuss the accident. Many concerned citizens from across the state of New Mexico are expected to attend.

The WIPP site has been a welcome source of income to many in the Carlsbad business community. However, many local residents, unattached to the business community, continue to be unhappy about the presence of a nuclear waste dump in their midst.

 It seems fair to say that the WIPP site has been a source of controversy since its inception. Unfortunately, it seems likely that this controversy will grow in the future, since there is a movement afoot now to extend the WIPP mandate, allowing new types of radioactive waste to be brought to WIPP.

Originally, WIPP was commissioned as a site where only low-level, and so-called transuranic (TRU) waste from nuclear weapons laboratories, would be permitted to be stored. More recently, however, it has been suggested that high level nuclear waste from nuclear power plants should also be allowed at WIPP. True to form, some in the Carlsbad business community seem to be responding positively to this proposal.

On 9 Feb., 2014, an article appeared in the New York Times concerning the modification and extension of WIPP's mandate ("Nuclear Waste Solution Seen in Desert Salt Beds", by Matthew L. Wald.) I wrote to Sen. Heinrich asking for his opinion of this matter. A copy of my letter follows:

 To Sen. Martin Heinrich:

What is your position on the possible expansion of the WIPP-site mandate to allow for storage of high level nuclear waste from nuclear power plants at WIPP?

When the WIPP-site was originally commissioned, it was said by many public officials, as well as by the DOE, that high level nuclear waste would never be allowed at WIPP.

Meanwhile, the nation has continued to struggle with the knotty problem of the selection and development of a suitable site for the long-term storage of high level nuclear waste. This problem has been very much exacerbated by the well-known NIMBY phenomenon.

Yucca Mt., Nevada had been thought to be a suitable site for the storage of high level nuclear waste, and many billions of dollars have been expended in preparing this site for the acceptance of that waste. But, a critical mass of Nevadans were opposed to that idea.

Consequently, the Obama Administration, ruled that the Yucca Mt. site was unsuitable and would never be opened.

In the wake of this very negative development, a special presidential panel was convened to study once again the problem of the siting of the storage of high level nuclear waste. The panel opined that, given recent past experiences, it would be advisable in the future to first obtain agreement from local populations to the placing of a high level nuclear waste site in their backyard, before the development of the site could reasonably proceed.

Now, it appears that some number of citizens living in the vicinity of Carlsbad, NM, the town closest to the present WIPP-site, are in favor of the expansion of the WIPP-site mandate, allowing for the storage there of high level nuclear waste. That is, some elements of the local business community are in favor of this move. It is unclear, however, just what fraction of the local citizenry is in favor of this development.

Perhaps a survey of attitudes in New Mexico communities to the expansion of the WIPP-site mandate, conducted by a highly respected polling entity, would be in order?

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