The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced that it intends to re-open the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in December 2016. The nation’s only deep geologic repository, located 26 miles east of Carlsbad, has been shut down since February 2014 because of two events – an underground fire and a radiation release.

DOE is in a rush to re-open WIPP even though the facility cannot meet the previous operational and safety standards, let alone more stringent requirements that are necessary to prevent future accidents. The WIPP underground remains contaminated, so operations have to be greatly changed, including workers being dressed in “ebola suits.” Ventilation will not be restored to the pre-2014 levels until 2021 or later – the new system is not designed and how much it will cost is unknown.

The transuranic (plutonium-contaminated) waste from manufacturing nuclear bombs can be in safe storage at the generator sites, so there is no emergency requiring the rush to re-open.

DOE is rushing to re-open WIPP and ALSO wants to expand WIPP to other missions that are prohibited by law, including:

  • Greater-Than-Class C waste from dozens of commercial power plants;
  • High-level waste from Hanford, WA;
  • Commercial waste from West Valley, NY;
  • Surplus weapons-grade plutonium from the Savannah River Site, SC.

DOE also is proceeding with finding a “volunteer” site for the nation’s high-level defense waste, and some officials in southeastern New Mexico say publicly that WIPP should be that repository!

The 1992 WIPP Land Withdrawal Act explicitly PROHIBITS all high-level waste, all spent nuclear fuel, and all commercial waste. But DOE wants to ignore the law!

Those prohibitions resulted from many New Mexicans demanding them!


Contact Senators Udall and Heinrich (and other elected officials) and ask them to stop the rush to re-open an unsafe WIPP. Ask them to require DOE to drop the expansion proposals and commit that WIPP will not be considered for high-level waste. Ask them to have Congress reiterate that the WIPP law is not being changed to allow those expansions.


Southwest Research and Information Center,, 505-262-1862

Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping,, 505-242-5511

Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety,, 505-986-1973

Nuclear Watch New Mexico,, 505-989-7342


Here is a sample letter to use as-is or to modify. You can use the electronic message system at the Senators’ offices.

Senator Udall’s electronic message system:

Senator Heinrich’s electronic message system:


Senator Tom Udall                                                            Senator Martin Heinrich

531 Hart Senate Office Building                                    303 Hart Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510                                                Washington, DC 20510


Dear Senator Udall and Senator Heinrich:

I am very concerned about the Department of Energy (DOE) rushing to re-open WIPP this year despite unresolved public and worker safety issues and because of the many proposals to expand WIPP, if it is re-opened.

The WIPP underground remains contaminated, so operations have to be greatly changed, including workers being dressed in “ebola suits.” Ventilation will not be restored to the pre-2014 levels until 2021 or later – the new system is not designed and how much it will cost is unknown.

The transuranic (plutonium-contaminated) waste from manufacturing nuclear bombs can be in safe storage at generator sites, so there’s no emergency requiring the rush to re-open.

DOE recently announced that it wants to expand WIPP for commercial Greater-than-Class C (GTCC) waste from nuclear reactors and for tons of weapons-grade plutonium. DOE also wants to have a defense high-level waste repository and some people want to “volunteer” WIPP!

There is time for my requests to be fulfilled.  Please:

* Tell DOE to improve the ventilation and other safety requirements before WIPP re-opens

* Insist that DOE drop the expansion proposals

* Require DOE to affirm that WIPP will not be considered for the defense high-level waste repository

* Obtain additional congressional assurances that the WIPP law is not going to be changed to allow the proposed expansions.

WIPP is a public health and safety issue now and for many generations to come!


Thank you.






Address                                                                        City                                   State                        Zip



WIPP site map





NukeWatch Urges Increasing DOE Accountability in Wake of Fines

On December 6, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) declared multiple violations at both the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). NMED plans to fine WIPP $17.7 million and LANL $36.6 million due to major procedural problems related to the handling of radioactive transuranic (TRU) wastes that contributed to two significant incidents at WIPP earlier this year.

In addition to “failure to adequately characterize waste” and other violations, LANL was cited for the processing of nitrate-bearing wastes and adding neutralizing agents to that waste stream. LANL treated this procedure as if it was outside the state hazardous waste permit, but NMED determined that these operations were not exempt. LANL treated 100s of waste drums without a permit, and one of these was apparently the cause of the February 14, 2014 radioactive release at WIPP that contaminated 21 workers.

WIPP was cited for, among other violations, not notifying NMED in a timely fashion of the February 14 radioactive release.

The $36.6 million fine at LANL is based on up to $10,000 per day per non-compliance, but still represents less than 2% of the Lab’s $2.1 billion annual budget. The contractor that runs the Lab, Los Alamos National Security, LLC, is eligible to earn $57 million in bonus award fees for the fiscal year that ended last September 30th. The fines should be taken out of the bonuses.

NMED stipulated that the penalties couldn’t be paid for out of designated funding for environmental cleanup or operational needs at LANL and WIPP.

Nuclear Watch New Mexico applauds these efforts to hold the Department of Energy accountable in New Mexico and we urge NMED to not negotiate these relatively modest fines down, as is typically the case. These fines should be paid out of the contractor’s profits. The Lab had this waste for over 20 years and still could not get it right. We hope these NMED fines are a wake up call for safe, comprehensive cleanup of all the wastes left from the Cold War at the Los Alamos Lab.”

NMED information is available here.

DOE releases predicted spread of WIPP contamination

We now have a look at DOE’s predicted contamination spread, available at the  Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) update page.

This model is based on three air samplers, and no samplers to the Northeast. There are still many questions, including:

What caused this release in the first place?

How contaminated is the underground?

Are soil samples being collected? From where?


Modeling has been done to estimate onsite worker and offsite public dose that may have resulted from the February 14, 2014, event. The results of the modeling indicate that all potential doses were well below the applicable regulatory limits (see results below). The modeling results are consistent with actual worker bioassay results. For modeling data see: ( Results.pdf)

Estimated Dose Maximum estimated worker dose 10 mrem Maximum estimated public dose 0.1 < 1 mrem

Natural Background 310 mrem

Applicable Regulatory Limit

5000 mrem per year

DOE all?paths limit (adults) 100 mrem per year

DOE all?paths limit for children/pregnant women 25 mrem per year

EPA Air (NESHAPs) Standard for inhalation is 10 mrem per year





Audit Cites Lack of Contractor Integration For Delay in Reestablishing Criticality Capability

The Oct 2013 Department of Energy Inspector General (DOE IG) audit report “The Resumption of Criticality Experiments Facility Operations at the Nevada National Security Site” informs us that a move from Technical Area 18 (TA-18) at Los Alamos to the Nevada National Security Site, like many other DOE projects, is taking longer than planned. The report didn’t mention it but it, but the move is, no doubt, costing us more, too.

The move centers on relocating four criticality assemblies. Criticality experiments use “assemblies” of enriched uranium and/or plutonium to create self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions. These assemblies differ from nuclear reactors in that the nuclear reaction is not sustained (assuming there are no accidents). Another significant difference is that the critical assemblies have no containment or shielding.

A DOE fact sheet tells us that:

[National Criticality Experiments Research Center] NCERC contains the largest collection of nuclear critical mass assembly machines in the western hemisphere. These assemblies can be broadly categorized as benchmark critical assemblies, general-purpose assemblies, and fast- burst assemblies that were designed to accommodate a broad range of experiments. Godiva is a bare metal uranium fast burst assembly designed to provide an intense burst of neutrons during an extremely short pulse. Flattop is a unique fast-spectrum assembly used for cross section testing and training. Planet and Comet are general purpose vertical assembly machines that are designed to accommodate experiments in which neutron multiplication is measured as a function of separation distance between experimental components. Fuel materials include uranium, plutonium, and neptunium.

Clearly, safety and careful planning would be of the utmost importance with these operations, which include conducting nuclear criticality experiments along with hands-on, criticality safety, and emergency response training.

The fact sheet gives the reason for the move as, “As a result of the extensive inventory of SNM and the resulting requirements for physical security and operational safety, it was decided to relocate…”

The DOE IG report also explains that criticality experiments at Los Alamos were halted and moved to Nevada “Citing safety and security concerns in 2004…”

But both of these accounts leave out some interesting history. A Project On Government Oversight (POGO) article gives an account of a security training exercise at TA-18 at Los Alamos –

In 1997, a special unit of the U.S. Army Special Forces was the adversary during a force-on-force exercise. The normal theft scenario is to “steal” enough SNM for a crude nuclear weapon that would fit in rucksacks. But, according to the Wall Street Journal, this exercise required that they “steal” more HEU than a person can carry. Not to be outmaneuvered, the Army Special Forces commandos went to Home Depot and bought a garden cart. They attacked TA-18, loaded the garden cart with nuclear materials, and left the facility. “[T]he invaders reached the simulated objective of the game: enough nuclear material to make an atom bomb.”

And they did so with relative ease. As the Wall Street Journal reported,

“The Garden Cart attackers. . .used snipers hidden in the hills to “kill” the first guards [protective forces] who arrived. Because they happened to be the commanders of the guard force, the rest of the force was thrown into disarray. Many of them also were “killed” as they arrived in small groups down a narrow road leading to TA-18. ‘[The Special Forces] took them out piecemeal as they came in,’ says one participant in the game, whose account wasn’t challenged by DOE or lab officials.”

As the Wall Street Journal further noted, “The 1997 mock invasion succeeded despite months of guard [protective forces] training and dozens of computerized battle simulations showing that newly beefed-up defenders of the facility would win.”

In April 2000, then DOE Secretary Bill Richardson ordered that TA-18 be shut down and all the nuclear materials be completely removed by 2004. So instead of completing the move the 2004, DOE and Los Alamos Lab had only started the move by 2004. Nuclear Watch NM voiced our concerns many times, including when we learned that a Federal Safety Board concluded fatal doses were possible if there was an accident.

As far as operational safety goes, neither the fact sheet nor the DOE IG Report mentioned that TA-18 was intentionally located at the bottom of Parajito Canyon so that the 200-foot canyon walls could provide some natural radiation shielding. This meant that TA-18, with its estimated three tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, sat in a flood plain.

The results of the DOE IG audit states that many of the former capabilities of the were restored in Nevada. However, several problems resulted in delays in restoring the full array of experimental capabilities. NNSA was unable to authorize operations until May 2011, approximately 1 year after the planned date. The program experienced further delays in the start-up activities of each criticality machine, with completion of all planned startup activities for one machine delayed about 2 years.
DOE has not been able to restore full capability to perform plutonium-based criticality experiments.

The Report results state that delays occurred because contractors had not developed adequate procedures for correcting concerns identified during the process to authorize the start-ups. Also, procured safety equipment did not meet standards. Additionally, the Report claimed that DOE had not ensured effective management of the multiple contractors involved and had struggled to successfully integrate and resolve issues between the multiple contractors. Which is odd, because there were only four contractors mentioned in the report – Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, National Security Technology, LLC, Wackenhut Services International. Exactly what Wackenhut (which provides security, fire rescue and aviation services) did for the move was not stated.

We do appreciate the focus on safety, but if these operations are so important, DOE must emphasize completing the job to avoid wasting any more taxpayers’ money. Once again the Department of Energy proves that its contractors cannot juggle safety, schedule, and cost without dropping as least two. And apparently DOE has trouble efficiently juggling contractors, which is too bad because contractors attempt to perform over 90% of DOE’s work.

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