From: John Fleck, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.
Published November 2, 2004 12:00 AM

EPA Says DOE's Radioactive Waste Shipments to New Mexico Facility Broke Rules

Nov. 2—ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Department of Energy shipped at least 602 drums of plutonium waste to New Mexico in violation of Environmental Protection Agency rules, according to documents obtained by the Journal.

As a result, federal regulators are considering a shutdown of radioactive waste shipments from Washington state to New Mexico.

The shipments, from the DOE's Hanford nuclear reservation to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, violated an EPA directive issued in August 2003. The directive said the waste should not be shipped because of questions about whether it had been properly tested.

Officials with the EPA, which has legal responsibility for environmental safety at WIPP, refused Monday to answer questions. EPA spokesman Dave Ryan issued a statement saying the agency is conducting "a full technical review" of the waste in question and gathering information to see what further action may be required.

DOE officials also refused to talk about the issue.

An internal EPA document obtained by the Journal says one option under consideration is a complete shutdown of all shipments from Hanford to WIPP.

It is the second such incident this year and the fourth since WIPP opened in 1999, a string of failures that threatens public confidence in WIPP, according to the document, an internal EPA review.

"EPA and DOE need to demonstrate that the violation is being taken seriously, and that changes will be made to ensure that it does not happen again," the EPA review concluded.

New Mexico Environment Secretary Ron Curry called the problem "mismanagement at the highest level."

Curry's department is in negotiations with DOE over a fine that could be as high as $2.4 million as a result of the most recent similar incident at WIPP.

In that incident, more than 100 drums of plutonium-contaminated waste were shipped from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory to WIPP earlier this year without proper testing.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is a mine dug 2,150 feet beneath the southeast New Mexico desert for the disposal of plutonium-contaminated nuclear weapons waste.

As the first facility of its kind, WIPP operates under rules intended to ensure that some dangerous materials — such as waste that contains explosives or is more radioactive than WIPP was designed to hold — are not inadvertently buried.

In each of the four cases, the DOE and EPA made an after-the-fact determination that no prohibited waste ended up underground, according to the EPA review.

"Although we do not believe this waste (already placed underground) will adversely affect WIPP's performance or affect protection of public health and the environment, a serious and thorough response to these problems is necessary to maintain public confidence in the WIPP's performance and EPA's oversight process," the EPA internal review concluded.

In the most recent case, Hanford had set up a testing program for the waste, but the EPA had not yet approved it as sufficient, WIPP manager Paul Detwiler wrote in an Oct. 18 letter to the EPA.

While that EPA review was under way, the environmental agency had explicitly directed DOE not to ship any of the questionable waste, according to Detwiler's letter. Detwiler admitted the mistake and promised a number of actions to try to ensure it does not happen again.

To see more of the Albuquerque Journal, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to© 2004, Albuquerque Journal. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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