Nukewatch Quarterly Spring 2015
The US Department of Energy (DOE) has appealed the $54 million in fines the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) imposed December 6 for 30 permit violations that led to the radioactive waste barrel explosion and radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad on Feb. 14, 2014. Calling the fines “capricious,” federal officials also threatened to pay them from the cleanup fund already allocated toward relieving New Mexico of the radioactive burden it has borne since it began hosting US nuclear weapons development with the Manhattan Project more than half a century ago.
“Essentially, DOE is threatening to punish states by doing less cleanup work if states attempt to hold it accountable for violating federal and state environmental laws,” NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn said February 20. Frustrated by the federal agency’s refusal to take responsibility for the gross mismanagement at its WIPP and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) facilities, Flynn confirmed that his office is preparing new compliance orders imposing well over $100 million in DOE fines.
“When you think of a container of radioactive material exploding without any kind of ignition switch that was stored above ground and transported on highways, and you think about what could have occurred if it exploded at ground level at Los Alamos or on the road, I don’t think $54 million is too much to pay, if you’re talking about protecting New Mexicans and their lives,” Flynn stated.
Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group has noted that the Obama administration’s proposed increase in nuclear weapons spending would pay “all the NMED-imposed fines a few times over.”
Last September a DOE report confirmed that LANL’s use of organic instead of inorganic kitty litter in packing material contributed to the barrel explosion and subsequent radiation leak that shut down WIPP and exposed almost two dozen workers to radiation a year ago. The report also attributed the policy change that called for “an organic” instead of “inorganic” litter to a handwritten note misread by the LANL procedure writer.
Officials estimate that cleanup of the WIPP site will cost upward of half a billion dollars and take until at least 2018 or 2019. As the nation’s only current option for storing high-level radioactive waste, the continued closure will significantly slow, if not halt, clean-up of early nuclear weapons production and testing facilities throughout the country. More than 500 of the 5,565 mis-packaged and mislabeled LANL waste drums, like the one that exploded, remain underground at WIPP.
—AP, Jan. 10; Current-Argus (Carlsbad), Feb. 12; Albuquerque Journal, Feb. 9, 13 & 21, 2015.
Editor’s note: Nukewatch has covered the WIPP leak continuously over the past year; for more background on the situation, see our Spring, Fall, and Winter 2014 Quarterly issues, which are accessible online at www.nukewatchinfo.org.