Friday, October 30, 1998

Pollster says New Mexicans confused over nuclear waste dump

ALBUQUERQUE (AP) - New Mexicans are confused over whether a nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad should be opened for radioactive material now temporarily stored in Idaho and other states, according to a University of New Mexico pollster.

"As long as it appears governments are fighting each other over whether WIPP should open, there will be a lot of confusion and concern," said Hank Jenkins-Smith, director of the university's Institute for Public Policy.

"My guess is if public officials at both the state and federal levels are behind opening, you're going to see a shift in that direction," he said.

The institute has been polling state residents on the $2 billion subterranean Waste Isolation Pilot Plant since 1990. Its latest survey conducted from Sept. 26 to Oct. 16 found 45 percent of respondents said they want the dump opened while 47 percent want it kept closed.

Last spring, the question drew 49 percent for opening the dump and 46 percent against it.

The facility plays a critical role in the federal government's nuclear waste deal with the state of Idaho. That deal requires plutonium-contaminated waste now stored at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory to begin being removed by next April. The initial removal requirements are minimal. But there are benchmarks over the next five years and all the low-level-long-lasting waste covered by the deal must be removed by 2019. Failure to meet the benchmarks would bar the Energy Department from temporarily storing high-level waste at the INEEL until a dump for it is built.

Opening of the New Mexico facility has been stymied by legal and regulatory disputes that officials now believe will not be settled until next year.

While the change in the spring and fall polls in New Mexico is statistically insignificant, Jenkins-Smith said it might reflect public response to the dispute between the Energy Department and the New Mexico Environment Department.

Federal environmental regulators have licensed the dump as being able to safely hold radioactive material for 10,000 years. But the state Environment Department has yet to issue a state permit for storing radioactive material that is tainted with other hazardous chemicals.

Jenkins said that since the institute began its polling, New Mexicans' attitudes toward the dump have not changed significantly, although they do appear to respond somewhat to the statements of public officials that people are seeing as confusing.