DOE puts freeze on WIPP

Flats shipments to waste dump could be on hold for months

By TERJE LANGELAND
Colorado Daily Staff Writer

Wednesday, December 01, 1999

New Mexico state officials have accomplished what anti-nuclear protestors at the gates of Rocky Flats haven't, so far: stopping shipments of nuclear waste to an underground dump near Carlsbad, N.M.

The Department of Energy, which operates the nation's nuclear complex, has temporarily stopped all shipments to the repository, known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

A new disposal permit issued by the New Mexico Environment Department, which went into effect Friday, subjects the waste shipments to a whole new set of compliance criteria.

As a result, it could be months before Rocky Flats, the former atomic-bomb factory south of Boulder, resumes shipments to WIPP.

"We're having to review all of our procedures," said Pat Etchart, a Rocky Flats spokesman. "Our efforts now are devoted to achieving compliance with the permit."

Although the DOE will seek to comply with the state permit for the time being, the department is challenging the permit in courts, saying it creates unreasonable obstacles. Meanwhile, environmental groups that oppose WIPP altogether have also sued the state over the permit, saying it should not have been issued at all.

Etchart said officials from the WIPP site are scheduled to audit Rocky Flats' compliance with the new state regulations in mid-December. The site hopes to resume shipments sometime in the first quarter of next year, he said.

The WIPP site opened last spring after being delayed for years due to legal and regulatory obstacles.

Rocky Flats is scheduled to send an estimated 2,500 truckloads of waste to WIPP before Rocky Flats is closed down, a process the DOE hopes to complete by 2006.

That averages out to about seven shipments per week. But in the five months since Rocky Flats made its first shipment, the site has only completed 23, or about one per week.

Before the permit requirements went into effect Friday, shipments from Rocky Flats had already been on hold since Nov. 9, Etchart said. Kaiser-Hill, the main contractor managing the cleanup at the site, initiated a site-wide "safety slowdown" in the beginning of November, which affected shipments, Etchart said.

Etchart said the slowdown was in response to concerns about worker safety. While worker accidents and injuries have not increased in recent months, there have been concerns about procedural violations, he said.

"Management was concerned that these procedural lapses, if left unaddressed, could lead to more serious problems," Etchart said.

The Colorado Daily reported on the worker safety concerns, which had been raised by union officials on the site as well as the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 8.

Etchart said Rocky Flats still hopes to catch up on shipments so as to reach the 2006 closure goal. The WIPP shipping schedule has been identified in official reviews as a major potential obstacle to meeting the 2006 deadline.