By Brooke Oleen Tieperman

The future storage of radioactive materials from the nation’s cold-war nuclear weapons production program to an underground storage site in southeast New Mexico is on hold. States wait—and wonder when the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, will be back in business.

Sign outside the WIPP facility in Carlsbad, N.M.The Department of Energy (DOE) is to move packaged, defense-related transuranic (TRU) waste—debris such as rags, tools, protective gear and soils—to the world’s only deep geologic repository situated outside of the community of Carlsbad. For nearly 15 years, the WIPP served as a model for storage and transportation centered on permanent disposal of long-lived TRU wastes. But a radiation leak in mid-February ceased operations at the site, triggered uncertainty, and the once-steady shipping campaign has slowed and even switched directions.

States with cold-war era federal nuclear weapons production and research facilities stand to be most affected by the closure. In particular, Idaho's national laboratory, Washington's Hanford site, South Carolina's Savannah River Site, Tennessee's Oak Ridge Reservation, and New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory have been the largest contributors of waste to WIPP—and want answers about where it will now go. 

States have agreements and timelines with the federal government to dispose of TRU waste—and all parties take those seriously. To meet states’ strict regulatory deadlines for waste disposal at WIPP, DOE devised a plan for TRU waste sitting at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The lab faces a strict June 30 deadline from the state to dispose of 1,000 temporary storage drums of waste pile up. In early April, the first shipment from LANL to the Waste Control Specialists facility in Andrews, Texas, was received. The waste will be temporarily staged at the commercial facility until WIPP resumes disposal operations.

The DOE Office of Environmental Management issued an initial accident investigation report related to the Feb. 14 radiological release. A monitor device detected radiation in the air at the above-ground portion of the site on Feb. 14. Seventeen workers tested positive for exposure to radiation, but not at levels that would cause health concerns, according to DOE.

WIPP has begun implementing corrective actions to address many of the issues raised in the report. These include enhanced work planning, nuclear safety controls, deploying experienced supplemental contractor and federal staff, and implementing additional senior contractor and federal oversight.

As the federal government continues its massive cleanup of the nuclear weapons complex and deals with the radiological release at WIPP, NCSL is at work and communicating directly with DOE and intergovernmental partners through a number of related working groups.

The NCSL Nuclear Legislative Working Group provides its 75 legislative members with the opportunity to learn about the cleanup of federal nuclear weapons production and research facilities, the transportation and storage of radioactive wastes, and nuclear energy issues that affect our nation and states. It guides NCSL policies that serve as the basis for NCSL’s advocacy before the federal government on behalf of state legislatures.

For 25 years, NCSL has staffed the State and Tribal Government Working Group which convenes representatives from states and tribes that host or are affected by DOE sites and activities. State governors and elected tribal leadership appoint representatives from member states and tribal nations. Members provide recommendations to ensure the DOE facilities and sites are operated and cleaned up in compliance with federal and state laws and regulations, and tribal rights including those retained by treaty, and conferred by statute and trust responsibility. Recommendations aim to protect human health and safety and environmental health.

These groups meet June 2-5, in Santa Fe, N.M., in conjunction with the National Governors Association’s Federal Facilities Task Force. They will be joined by DOE site and headquarters officials and other intergovernmental partners to focus on cleanup related to Los Alamos National Lab and WIPP.

NCSL will also be at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the National Transportation Stakeholders Forum, May 13-15, in Bloomington, Minn. The NTSF is the mechanism through which DOE engages at a national level with states, tribes, federal agencies and other interested stakeholders about the department’s shipments of radioactive waste and materials. Meetings are relevant for personnel with responsibilities in packaging and transportation, emergency management, security, inspection and enforcement, and radiation protection. NCSL staffs the NTSF Tribal Caucus, a co-host this year with the Council of State Governments’ Midwestern High-Level Radioactive Waste Committee.

Follow the latest on WIPP developments at the DOE Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Recovery website and through NCSL.

Brooke Oleen Tieperman is a senior policy specialist in NCSL’s Environment, Energy and Transportation Program.

Email Brooke.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.


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