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July 31, 2015

Moniz Visits Troubled Nuclear Waste Site

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico (Energy Department)

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico (Energy Department)

Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz is in New Mexico to visit the waste isolation pilot plant, known as WIPP, where radiation was released following an accident in February.

“We are making progress on the recovery plan,” Moniz said at a community meeting in nearby Carlsbad on Monday evening, where he fielded both frustration and praise from residents and elected officials. “You may be a little bit frustrated, we’re all frustrated,” he said of progress toward finding the cause of and cleaning up from the incident. “We’ve got to stay data-driven and make sure that we understand things quite well.”

The facility is a deep geologic repository for transuranic waste —  artificially made radioactive elements, primarily from the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Moniz said he expects the department to have a formal recovery plan in September, at which point the cost of the effort will be better known. The department has rectified all but three of the more than 50 safety violations identified after the accident, he said.

While he welcomed congressional willingness to provide funding for the recovery — with more than $100 million in an appropriations bill the House passed and in a Senate measure that stalled in June — Moniz took the opportunity to rail against budgetary sequester limits, saying that regular maintenance to handle the nation’s nuclear waste should be considered mandatory funding.

“Maybe we have to reconsider what we call discretionary [spending] and revisit sequestration,” he said.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., thanked Moniz for responding to the delegation’s request for a visit to the site.

“WIPP recovery must be a top priority at DOE,” Udall said at the meeting. “We all know there’s frustration here with recent events and the slow recovery.”

Congressional colleagues Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich and Republican Rep. Steve Pearce were also at the meeting. Moniz is scheduled to visit the site today.

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