Idaho Bars Plutonium Wastes

DOE Faces Unpalatable Options in Search for Storage

By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer

DENVER, Sept. 1

The high-stakes plutonium poker being played out among three western states and the Department of Energy entered a new phase today as Idaho, formally closed its borders to shipments of toxic plutonium waste materials from weapon on plants.

After watching Idaho accept radioactive rubbish from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapon factory here on a "temporary" basis for 17 years, Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus (D)announced last spring that the state would block shipments after today. Although there is some doubt about Andrus's legal authority to take that stand, the Energy Department agreed not to challenge his policy, which is popular among Idahoans.

But with Idaho out of the picture, the Energy Department likely will face two alternatives for handling the waste problem, neither of which is politically palatable.

One choice would be to shut down Rocky Flats, an industrial campus 16 miles northwest here. But since the plant is the military's only source of the plutonium "triggers," or fuses, that detonate nuclear weapons this would amount to a form of unilateral disarmamentAlternatively, the department might force other states to store the wasteserials that Idaho now refuses. The department is studying the possibility of placingthe waste at military installations in several states

The storage situation will not become a crisis immediately because Rocky Flats has enough room to temporarily store its own waste. Colorado Gov. Roy Romer (D), under political pressure from the suburban facility's neighbors, has limited storage at Rocky Flats. The plant will reach that limit in about six months.

The long-term answer to the plutonium waste problem brings New Mexico Gov. Garrey Carruthers (R) into the game.

His state is the home of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a $692 million hole in the ground in the desert near Carlsbad, N.M. WIPP is supposed to serve as a permanent storage site for nuclear waste from Rocky Flats and other facilities in the national network of nuclear weapon factories.

But WIPP has not yet opened because of environmental concerns in New Mexico. Because the federal government is almost desperate to open the WIPP site, Carruthers has considerable leverage. He has asked for several hundred million dollars and various types of safety assurance from Washington in return for permitting WIPP to open.

Carruthers says the risk to the nation's nuclear force is not his problem. At a meeting with Energy Secretary James D. Watkins June, Carruthers declared that it was "not an emergency for New Mexico" if Rocky Flats closes and the Defense Department loses its source of nuclear weapons.

The Energy Department has missed several of its own deadlines for finishing work at the WIPP facility. It had been scheduled to open today, but in June Watkins announced that it would be impossible to do so.

According to Bernard Pleau of the WIPP office in Carlsbad, there still is no firm estimate on when WIPP might open. Watkins has yet to receive a report from a committee of scientists he appointed to study the plant's safety. And even if the Energy Department were to pronounce WIPP ready, the state of New Mexico and environmental groups could delay the opening through regulatory actions or lawsuits.

It seems unlikely that WIPP will be ready to receive very much plutonium waste by next March, when storage room will be exhausted at the Rocky Flats plant. It is unclear what will happen then.

The Energy Department has been working on techniques to reduce the volume of waste from Rocky Flats, which would ex tend the period when the material could be stored at the site. However, this "waste compaction" technology may not be ready by the March deadline.

When WIPP opens, the Energy Department will be equipped to ship the lethal plutonium from here to Carlsbad. This week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the safety of highly specialized trash trucks, costing $220,000 apiece, to haul away the waste. Shipment of the waste has been a serious concern in New Mexico because the main route from Denver to Carlsbad passes near Santa Fe, the state capital, and through Albuquerque, the state's largest city.


An article Aug. 19 in Real Estate incorrectly described a D.C. City Council bill addressing rental-housing capital improvements. Under the bill, a rent increase to cover improvements would not necessarily end after the eight-year amortization period. The rent increase would be abated after the landlord had recovered the cost of the improvements.

The informal name of a Miami radio station, "Radio Mambi," was reported incorrectly yesterday.