Global implications of the failure of Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)

NuClear News No.61 April 2014 WIPP failure has global implications
When a radioactive waste truck caught on fire inside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) on February 5, it seemed like it was probably an isolated incident, not the beginning of a saga that could affect U.S. radioactive waste policy permanently and even radwaste policy internationally.
But the truck fire was followed by a still-unexplained offsite radiation release–including plutonium on February 14. That was then followed by a second, for a time unrevealed, and also still-unexplained, radiation release on March 11. It became clear that the WIPP saga will have long-term ramifications, not only for the nuclear weapons radwaste WIPP was built to handle, but also for the far larger and much more radioactive inventory of commercial high-level nuclear waste, not only in America, but around the globe. WIPP is currently closed and will remain so for some time.
WIPP has played a crucial part in the history of nuclear waste proposals in the UK. In 1989, in the run-up to a referendum in Caithness in November of that year on whether or not to allow Nirex to search for a deep disposal site in the County, the Head of Information Services at Dounreay used WIPP as an example of a successful waste disposal site in an article he wrote for the John ‘O Groat Journal. In response a letter from the US Radioactive Waste Campaign described the article as “an outright lie”. McRoberts had claimed that WIPP was already receiving shipments and that the repository was dry. In fact the repository remained unopened at the time because in 1987 salt-laden water was fund to be seeping inside. One State Senator told the New Mexico press that:
“We have waste we aren’t sure about, stored in containers that haven’t been approved, travelling over roads that haven’t been improved and being put in salt beds we don’t know about. We’d like to put the brakes on before we get to the edge of the cliff.”
74% of voters in the Caithness referendum voted against Nirex’s plans in November 1989.
Given that WIPP, until the recent problems was the only deep geologic disposal facility operating in the world (in Europe, especially Eastern Europe, it is frequently–and incorrectly–described as a “high-level” radioactive waste site by nuclear advocates), the lessons, whatever they turn out to be, from the series of WIPP failures surely will affect other proposed and potential sites for years to come.
Many New Mexicans fought the project, knowing that in the expected 10,000-year life of the project there eventually would be problems. A poll found residents of southern New Mexico oppose the project three to one, but because of considerable encouragement from local businessmen and politicians, the project eventually moved forward. Locals felt their concerns had been ignored, while local and state politicians used the depressed economic conditions in southern New Mexico to push the project forward since it promised jobs. Given that it is a mere 15 years since the site began receiving waste, the concern appears to be justified.
Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at Southwest Research and Information Center, who has been monitoring WIPP since 1975 and is familiar with the technical, policy, regulatory and legal issues related to the site, is reluctant to state there are any “guaranteed” methods of safely storing radioactive waste.
wastes-1“Given that long-lived nuclear wastes are dangerous for thousands of generations, emplacing them deep underground is a possible ‘solution,’ but it certainly isn’t ‘guaranteed,’ ” he said. “Neither WIPP, nor the proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, are ‘ideal’ and meet publicly accepted standards. Both sites were picked for political, not technical, reasons, so it is not surprising that they are inadequate.”
Hancock believes that what is needed is a decades-long program to develop technical standards for any sites then a comprehensive national effort to identify the “best” sites that might meet the standards, then testing and establishing public “consent” for such sites (including a truck and train transportation system).
He also recommends careful state and national regulatory oversight of development, operation and decontamination and decommissioning of such facilities, and long-term safety procedures to help protect future generations, should nuclear waste operations be continued.

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