Twenty-three years after the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M., was first proposed, the controversial $2.5 billion underground storage facility is scheduled to open this spring.
The Department of
Energy formally approved the project on Jan. 23, and the
Environmental Protection Agency is expected to certify it in May.
Department of Energy officials say they'll open the site after they
get EPA approval. The pilot plant is designed to accept barrels of
plutonium residues, contaminated clothing and equipment used in
nuclear weapons production, now housed at sites throughout the
country. Site administrators plan to store about 2 percent of the
nation's nuclear weapons waste at the plant.
some believe WIPP faces another roadblock. Many of the barrels
contain "mixed wastes' - chemical as well as radioactive waste -
and the state of New Mexico is responsible for permitting the
disposal of chemical waste, says Nathan Wade from the New Mexico
Environment Department. To satisfy state requirements, he says,
WIPP administrators will have to get a permit or go through a
"characterization" process to prove the barrels contain only
But DOE says it will go ahead
with or without a permit. Kent Walter, a WIPP site manager, says
the DOE has a characterization process already in place. He also
says the state has been slow and uncommunicative. "We just don't
know how long we'd have to wait," says Walter. "Technically
speaking, they might never issue us a permit."
New Mexico Attorney General Tom Udall, a vocal
opponent of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, has said that he may
sue the DOE over its failure to obtain a state permit and over
several safety concerns, including the possible collapse of
underground storage caverns and the risks posed by oil and gas
drilling near the site. Environmental groups appear ready to join
his effort. "It's an unnecessary and dangerous project," says Don
Hancock of the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information
Center. "We're willing to go back and sue them again."