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WIPP celebrates 25 years of operations

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WIPP celebrates 25 years of operations

Levi Hill/News-Sun

Today the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in eastern Eddy County — about 40 miles west of Hobbs — stands as an edifice to sound science, collaboration and cooperation, but 43 years ago when Arthur Moss walked out onto what would become WIPP, all that stood in that lonely patch of desert was a single stake painted orange.

“Wow. I am really impressed,” Moss, president of Moss Engineering, said of what WIPP has become.

When Moss first came to the WIPP site, it was as a geologist and engineer with D’Appolonia Consulting, working with Westinghouse to do the first core samples and testing of the salt beds 2,150 feet beneath the surface for the long-term disposal of transuranic nuclear waste generated by the U.S. defense industry.

“When I first came out here you could bring everyone involved out in one car,” Moss said while some 100 dignitaries mulled around the site and more than 100 workers performing the day-to-day operations Tuesday.

Moss and assorted guests were on site for the celebration of the site’s 25th year in operation.

The first load of transuranic waste from Sandia National Laboratories arrived on location in the Southeast New Mexican desert for permanent disposal at 3:30 a.m. March 6, 1999.

Since then more than 14,000 shipments of TRU waste have been hauled to WIPP, accounting for more than 16 million highway miles.

Some 283,000 containers of TRU waste from 22 sites around the nation have been permanently reposited at WIPP since 1999.

“WIPP is a model for nations around the world,” said David Turk, Deputy U.S. Secretary of Energy at Tuesday’s event. “Our cleanup may not get Oscar buzz, but it is critical.”

Another shipment of waste was expected to arrive Tuesday afternoon from Los Alamos, according to Kent Harrawood, president of SIMCO, the management company in charge of WIPP operations.

“The support of Southeast New Mexico’s communities has made this day possible,” said Mark Bollinger, with the DOE’s Carlsbad field office, who added the mayors of both Carlsbad and Loving are SIMCO employees.

Craig Albert, CEO of the Bechtel Group, SIMCO’s parent company, said the company has only been the managers of the facility for about a year, but was involved with the site investigation and early engineering stages of the facility in the 1970s.

He attributed WIPP’s success to the employees who have been involved in the everyday operations at the site.

“It takes a lot to operate successfully for a quarter century,” he said. “I am here representing all the men and women past and present who made this possible.”

Former U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who was at the inaugural ribbon cutting for the site more than two decades ago, was the key speaker Tuesday.

“The communities have been steadfast in their support of WIPP and deserve the first congratulations for today’s accomplishment,” he said.

Bingaman said WIPP is indeed a model of how all levels of government can come together to achieve a goal and said the site should be a template for inter-governmental collaboration, discussing how New Mexico and the DOE worked together to ensure the site was safe and a viable option for disposal of TRU legacy waste.

“Public officials at all levels of government were able to work together to achieve a controversial objective,” Bingaman said, adding the project was certainly controversial at the time it was initially proposed.

With projects like International Isotopes and the Holtec interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel hitting roadblocks at every turn in state government, the comments of Sydney Lienemann, deputy cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department, perhaps shows how monumental an achievement the collaboration was that made the WIPP site possible.

While calling the site a “monumental feat of engineering,” Lienemann discussed the most recent permit renewal for WIPP that took place last year.

“Expectations were not particularly high,” Lienemann said about NMED’s stance heading into what ended up being four days of meetings with SIMCO, DOE and other parties.

“I think you go in with preconceived notions,” she said, adding she was not a part of that meeting process. “But it was so exciting to get to a place where we were comfortable with what was negotiated.”

When asked if he ever conceived 43 years ago that WIPP would become what it is today, Moss said he knew it would happen someday.

“I felt that the facility was probably the best facility they could find,” he said. “Their design validation study looked at all the sites in the country and they picked the WIPP project. I had a great deal of confidence they would prove the design concepts were solid. It was just a matter of time.”

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