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More questions plague nuclear waste dump.

More questions plague nuclear waste dump

Safety concerns and unanswered questions once again threaten plans to open the first U.S. underground repository for nuclear waste.

Located in a salt formation near Carlsbad, N.M., the $700 million Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is intended to hold materials contaminated with plutonium and other long-lived radioactive elements from the nation's nuclear weapons plants. The Department of Energy, which runs the facility, had planned to start storing drums in WIPP's under-ground rooms last September as part of a five-year test to show that the plant will meet EPA standards. Under criticism that the plant was not ready, the department revised its schedule and targeted this September to begin waste loading (SN: 9/24/88, p.199).

Earlier this month, the department issued its draft plan outlining WIPP's test-phase activities. At a hearing last week, witnesses told Conress that the draft, now under revision, failed to resolve important strategy and safety issues. Later in the week, the department announced WIPP would not open until October.

According to its ever-shifting plan, the Energy Department proposes to load as many as 25,000 drums in WIPP over the next three years, but only 3,700 are destined for experiments concerning safety regulations. Most drums will be stored for practice, says Lokesh Chaturvedi of the independent Environmental Evaluation Group in Albuquerque, N.M.

Chaturvedi says the department should load only the number of drums necessary for experiments, because test results may require workers to remove and reprocess the waste--a costly and potentially dangerous operation. At the very least, workers will have to shuffle drums underground.

The proposed experiments will focus on gas generated by the waste. Work in recent months has suggested the gas could be a more serious problem than expected. At worst, it could build pressure and enlarge cracks in the salt, giving the waste an exit route toward a nearby aquifer or to the surface.

To explore this effect, the department will perform three types of experiments: one in labs, another in sealed bins and a third in closed WIPP rooms. The bin tests are planned for inside WIPP, but these could occur anywhere and the department has yet to justify hauling waste and bins underground, contends Keith O. Fultz of the General Accounting Office.

Moreover, many of the experiments will not start until after the Energy Department issues its draft report on compliance with EPA standards. This, says Fultz, raises questions about the purpose of the experiments. He also notes that criminal investigations of operations at the department's Rocky Flats plant in Colorado (see story, p. 391) may affect WIPP. The Colorado facility produces much of the waste to be stored in WIPP.

The department must answer these criticisms beore Congress will authorize it to proceed with WIPP. Speaking at the hearing, Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) said, "I have become very concerned about the Department of Energy's approach to this project as deadline after deadline passes."
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Title Annotation:Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Carlsbad, New Mexico
Author:Monastersky, R.
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 24, 1989
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