Nuclear waste to roll next week
First shipment from Idaho will move down Denver's I-25

By TERJE LANGELAND Colorado Daily Staff Writer

April 16, 1999

Watch out -- a truck carrying more than 2,300 gallons of radioactive waste is scheduled to come rolling down Interstate Highway 25 next week, straight through the heart of Denver.

The Department of Energy has announced that a week from Saturday, it will send the first shipment of waste from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground nuclear-waste dump near Carlsbad, N.M.

The waste will consist of graphite molds used in the production of plutonium "pits" -- triggers for nuclear warheads -- which originated from Rocky Flats but have been stored in Idaho since the 1970s and '80s. The DOE's announcement immediately drew protests from WIPP opponents, who said the shipment would violate federal hazardous-waste laws and a notification promise made by the DOE.

Don Hancock, a leading WIPP critic in Albuquerque, N.M., said the DOE had promised the Western Governors Association an eight-week advance notice of any nuclear waste shipments. However, the affected states, including Colorado, were only notified in the past week. "Now they've decided eight weeks means two weeks," Hancock said. "(It's) one of the many promises the DOE has broken."

Moreover, the DOE has gotten into a dispute with the state of New Mexico Environment Department after turning down a request from the state agency to provide detailed information about the nature of the waste. Under federal law, the state of New Mexico has the authority to regulate shipments of so-called "mixed" transuranic waste, which consists of both radioactive and other hazardous materials.

The DOE says the Idaho waste is non-mixed or "pure" radioactive waste, but Nathan Wade, a spokesman for the New Mexico Environment Department, said the DOE needs to hand over the documents that prove it. "There is reason to believe it may be mixed," Wade said of the waste. "We want proof that it is not." The waste was classified as mixed when it left Rocky Flats, Wade said. The DOE has since reclassified it as non-mixed but won't share the information upon which it based that decision, he said. In a letter Monday, the DOE stated it was "unaware of any requirement or precedent" to submit the information.

On Thursday a DOE official, who requested not to be named, said the state of New Mexico's request was "under consideration" following a conference call with state officials earlier in the day. The official also said the parties "understand each other better" after the conference call, but Wade disagreed. "There was no movement," Wade said. "We are still seeking the data." Wade said his department would consider taking legal action to block the Idaho shipment if the DOE didn't submit the information.

Meanwhile, Brad Bugger of the DOE's Idaho office said that even if the waste were mixed, a judge has ruled that WIPP has "interim status," which means it can receive mixed waste while the state permit is pending. "Technically, the department could ship mixed waste if it wanted to, so it's really a moot point," Bugger said.

"That's entirely wrong," Wade countered, saying the waste is still subject to state regulations.

Bugger said the eight-week notification to which Hancock referred had been intended as a "courtesy" only, and said legal requirements only call for a two-week notice.

The DOE didn't have time for an eight-week notice, he said, "because we have an April 30 deadline here." Bugger was referring to a legal settlement from 1995 in which the DOE agreed to ship transuranic waste from Idaho by the end of April 1999.

According to Hancock, the DOE will probably make just one shipment out of Idaho this year to meet the deadline. After that, the department may shift its focus to Colorado, where there is great political pressure to get waste moved out of Rocky Flats, he said. "It's more important, politically, for the DOE to show that they're shipping out of Colorado," Hancock said.

The Colorado Legislature recently passed a resolution urging the DOE to "immediately" start moving waste from Rocky Flats to WIPP.

Bugger confirmed that next week's shipment was the only one currently planned from Idaho, although he added, "there could be more later."

Shipments from Rocky Flats would almost certainly face legal challenges from WIPP critics, who contend that Rocky Flats waste also hasn't been proven to be non-mixed. After 20 years of legal and regulatory hurdles that had prevented WIPP from opening, the facility recently received its first two shipments from Los Alamos National Laboratories, N.M. A federal judge last month lifted a 1991 court injunction against the opening of the facility -- the world's first of its kind, excavated in salt beds 2,150 feet beneath the desert.

The shipments from Los Alamos also consisted of non-mixed transuranic waste, according to the DOE. The DOE reportedly plans to complete a total of 17 shipments from Los Alamos before starting to ship 9,000 truckloads from Idaho and 2,500 truckloads from Rocky Flats.

Anti-WIPP activists in Boulder said they didn't know yet whether they would take action against next week's shipment. "There are people talking about it, but there are no plans in place yet," said LeRoy Moore of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. The peace center has been offering "nonviolence training" to activists in preparation of possible confrontations with authorities when WIPP waste begins rolling from Rocky Flats.

Critics of WIPP contend the facility will leak and argue that transuranic waste should be stored where it is, in a safe and retrievable form, until a better solution is found for disposing of it. They say transportation of the waste places millions of people along the highways in danger due to potential accidents. Some 28,000 truckloads are scheduled to come through Colorado on I-25 over the next 35 years, most of them from Idaho and the state of Washington.