Senators touring INL ponder waste issue

Idaho's Risch says the recent closure of WIPP shows the need for 'diverse' options.

(IDAHO FALLS) POST REGISTERMarch 22, 2014 

Four U.S. senators visiting Idaho Falls expressed concerns about the continuing nationwide problem of nuclear waste disposal.

Republican Sen. Mike Crapo toured the Idaho National Laboratory accompanied by the three senior GOP members on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources: Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

"I'd like to be able to say we are moving right along, but the truth is these issues (of how to deal with nuclear waste) have confounded us for years now," Murkowski said.

"That is why it is important that we have good strong legislation that puts us on a path that is workable, consent driven and addresses this outstanding issue."

The committee oversees research and development of energy nationwide, making legislative recommendations for Department of Energy sites such as INL. The goal of Friday's tour was to show committee members research projects at INL.

Murkowski, stressed the need of finding additional sites to permanently store nuclear waste. She supports reopening the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada, which closed in 2011 when the Obama administration pulled its funding.

The issue is particularly pertinent in light of the recent closing of the Carlsbad, N.M., Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, also known as WIPP. The underground repository for nuclear weapons waste was closed last month after a truck caught fire in an underground tunnel. In a separate Feb. 14 incident, 17 employees were exposed to a radiation leak.

"We don't know how long it will be closed and we've really pressed for answers on that, but unfortunately you get estimates from two weeks to a year or more," Risch said. "Frankly I'm frustrated. … We all know what happened down there, but we should be able to take those things in stride and get back up and running again."

A prolonged closing at the New Mexico site could affect on nuclear waste cleanup efforts. The Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project, the biggest user of WIPP, has suspended shipments of transuranic waste from INL until further notice.

INL cleanup contractors are working on a deadline from the 1995 Settlement Agreement between Idaho and the federal government, that calls for all transuranic waste to be removed from the state no later than Dec. 31, 2018.

"This is a serious problem and really underscores the weakness when you have just a single source for handling the material," Risch said. "But ... this underscores that we need to be more diverse than we are now."

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