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Reversal on nuclear waste tests.

The Department of Energy (DOE) last month announced a major change in its plans to open an underground repository for high-level radioactive waste beneath the desert in south-eastern New Mexico. Under the Bush administration, DOE had fought for the right to load waste canisters into the completed facility as part of a test designed to demonstrate that the storage site can meet environmental safety standards. But the department now acknowledges that it can conduct the necessary tests without placing radioactive wastes underground, a view many scientists had long maintained.

"This is a major break with the last administration's approach, which frankly did not give full considerations to the concerns of the scientific community, EPA, and the public," said Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary.

The facility in question, called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), lies 653 meters below ground and consists of 56 cavernous rooms carved out of a salt formation. Construction of the repository has cost $1.5 billion so far and is running years behind schedule. DOE built WIPP to dispose of some 900,000 drums of waste contaminated by plutonium and other highly radioactive elements during the production of nuclear weapons. Before opening WIPP to full-scale operations, DOE must demonstrate that the facility can meet federal regulations governing the long-term disposal of radioactive and hazardous wastes.

The department has argued for many years in favor of placing some waste in WIPP to demonstrate that the site complies with environmental regulations. In the early 1980s, DOE had planned to store 193,000 drums underground for these tests, but that number has steadily dropped in the last decade. In 1991, the department sought to move as many as 9,000 drums into WIPP but was blocked by the courts following a petition by the state of New Mexico. The proposed number of drums dropped to 95 earlier this year. According to DOE, the experiments were required to measure the amount of gas generated by the waste.

Many groups reviewing the WIPP program have opposed the underground tests, contending that the department has never demonstrated that the data are important for the permitting process. DOE also has not proved the necessity of conducting such tests and WIPP rather than at above-ground locations, where the waste could easily be retrieved should the need arise, says Robert H. Neill, director of the Environmental Evaluation Group, an Albuquerque-based committed funded by DOE to oversee the WIPP project. Neill and others reason that the department wanted to conduct the tests at WIPP mostly for the symbolic value of finally bringing some waste into the facility. "We compliment DOE in taking the courage to say, 'We've been on the wrong path,'" Neill says.

Rather than putting tests waste into WIPP, the department plans to conduct the necessary experiments in selected above-ground research sites, where investigators can collect the data faster and cheaper than underground, says Thomas P. Grumbly, DOE's assistant secretary for environmental management in Washington, D.C. The tests will involve both real and simulated wastes and are designed to demonstrate that the WIPP facility can keep unsafe levels of radioactivity out of the environment for 10,000 years. DOE plans to use the results of the laboratory tests when it submits its appplication for certification to the Environmental Protection Agency in 1995.
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Title Annotation:Department of Energy will not deposit radioactive waste in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for testing
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Nov 6, 1993
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