Obama budget would reduce funds for New Mexico nuclear dump, but lab funding relatively stable

IndustrialsAssociated Press

President Barack Obama's proposed budget would provide less money for the nation's underground nuclear waste repository but keep funding relatively stable for two major Energy Department weapons labs in New Mexico.

Funding for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad would be cut by more than $76 million to $248 million.

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The repository has been closed for nearly a year because of a radiation leak that stemmed from a container of waste that had been shipped from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Federal officials have said it could take years and more than half a billion dollars to reopen.

Nuclear watchdog groups say Congress should question the money sought for the lab and the repository.

"They're still asking Congress to give WIPP more money in 2016, when it is still closed, than in 2014, when it was operating," said Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque.

Los Alamos National Laboratory's funding would increase by 4 percent, while funding for Sandia National Laboratories would see a 1 percent reduction.

Funding for the labs and WIPP are part of the Energy Department's $30 billion budget request for fiscal year 2016.

Funding for cleanup across the nation's nuclear weapons complex remains flat at $5.5 billion, even though estimated cleanup costs of contamination continue to climb, watchdog groups say. About $185 million is proposed for cleaning up long-term nuclear and hazardous waste at Los Alamos lab.

Los Alamos is continuing to package and prepare waste — such as contaminated equipment, gloves and other debris — for shipment to WIPP when the facility reopens.

With DOE uncertain about WIPP's reopening, Hancock questioned why the administration wants millions of dollars to pay transportation contractors through next year when no waste is being shipped. The budget request includes $16 million to pay Cast Specialty Transportation and Visionary Solutions to haul mixed low-level radiation waste from sites like the lab to WIPP. The companies continued to be paid some of their contracted funds last year although the storage facility was shut down.

The DOE said it's better to keep the companies on hand and ready to haul shipments as soon as WIPP reopens. The companies also certify and maintain the packages used to haul the waste, and provide training for agencies along the waste shipping routes.