Tuesday, March 14, 2000

WIPP shipments resume

Colorado Daily Staff Writer

Trucks loaded with nuclear waste are once again rolling through Denver on their way to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

After passing an audit by the New Mexico Environment Department Thursday, Rocky Flats, the former nuclear weapons plant south of Boulder, resumed shipments of transuranic waste to WIPP late Friday night.

A truck loaded with 28 drums of transuranic waste -- consisting of clothing, tools, rags, debris and residues contaminated mainly with plutonium -- left Rocky Flats at about 10:40 p.m. Friday and finished the 705-mile trip to WIPP at about 5:07 p.m.

The Department of Energy originally started shipping waste to WIPP, an underground repository near Carlsbad, N.M., last year. But the shipments were suspended in November, when the New Mexico Environment Department issued a set of permit regulations for the facility.

The regulations meant that Rocky Flats had to undergo an audit of its waste-characterization process before shipments could resume, said Nathan Wade, a New Mexico Environment Department spokesman.

The DOE has challenged some of the regulations in a still-pending lawsuit against the state of New Mexico. But for the time being, the DOE is complying with the regulations, Wade said.

Rocky Flats is the first to resume shipments among the many DOE facilities scheduled to send their waste to WIPP. Overall, some 38,000 shipments are scheduled to take place over the next 30 years, of which 2,500 will originate from Rocky Flats.

A total of more than 25,000 shipments will come through Denver from Rocky Flats, the Idaho National Engineering Lab and the Hanford site in Washington state.

Dennis Hurtt, a spokesman for WIPP, said Hanford shipments may begin later this year. Shipments from Idaho, a few of which have already taken place, may also resume later this year, he said.

Another Rocky Flats shipment is scheduled for Thursday, said Karen Lutz, a DOE spokeswoman. Lutz said Rocky Flats will probably send about two shipments per week in the immediate future, and hopes to send four or five shipments per week by the end of the year.

Rocky Flats will need to make at least eight shipments per week in order to meet its goal of closing by 2006. Lutz said the site is in the process of designing and building two new loading and shipping facilities, after which the site should be able to make two shipments per day.

Activists from the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder, who staged protests when WIPP shipments began last year, don't expect to resume their protests right away.

"For the time being, we're concentrating on educating people about WIPP in other ways," said Judith Mohling, a peace center volunteer.

Activists affiliated with the center say the WIPP facility is likely to leak, and that transportation of waste to the site will expose millions of people along the nation's highways to risk of accidents. The activists say the nuclear waste should be stored in a retrievable form until a safer way is developed to dispose of or neutralize the waste.