August, a drunk driver crashed into a truck in southern New Mexico that was hauling 28 55-gallon drums of nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad, N.M. (HCN, 4/12/99: Nuclear waste dump opens). Less than two weeks later, the driver of another truck carrying waste to WIPP blacked out, hurtling across an interstate median in Idaho. His backup driver was asleep in the cab.
In July, the New Mexico Department of Transportation reported 89 minor violations found in WIPP vehicles, which haul waste from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. "It's only a matter of time until there's a more serious accident," says Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center, a WIPP watchdog group based in Albuquerque.
But WIPP spokesman Dennis Hurtt says the accidents aren't surprising: "Statistically, we do expect incidents and accidents to occur over the 35-year life of the project." In response to the recent accidents, WIPP has given drivers additional training and now requires them to take an eight-hour rest stop on the 30-hour trip from the Idaho laboratory.
Hancock says it's not enough. He believes that every vehicle carrying radioactive waste should have an escort and an emergency response team.
"Escorts are costly and unnecessary," says Hurtt, "except in special circumstances, like during the Winter Olympics."
This fall, Congress is expected to increase the WIPP budget by $14 million in order to accelerate waste shipments.