Communications Fallout Derails Waste Project

By Price, Stuart | Public Relations Journal, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Communications Fallout Derails Waste Project


Price, Stuart, Public Relations Journal


Valuable lessons can often be learned from missed opportunities, specially in the growing field of environmental public relations. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a $1.5 billion U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) project in southeastern New Mexico, suffered a recent setback that offers constructive lessons about conducting environmental public relations campaigns. The setback was brought about by a failure to communicate effectively with activist groups and a new presidential administration with a different environmental attitude than its predecessors.

The WIPP, located near Carlsbad, NM, was conceived in the 1970s as a prototype research and development project to evaluate nuclear waste disposal. Since its inception the WIPP has been a focus of environmental controversy.

In the mid-'80s, a three- to five-year test phase, comprising radioactive and nonradioactive experiments, was envisioned to evaluate WIPP's structural suitability and ensure environmental protection. Test experiments were scheduled to be conducted in the WIPP underground, a mined-out region located almost one-half mile below the surface in a geologic salt bed. These test phase experiments would determine whether tons of excess products, contaminated with hazardous chemicals such as industrial solvents, as well as radioactive by-products such as plutonium particles, could be safely placed in the WIPP underground and permanently isolated from the Earth's biosphere.

The DOE and its prime operating contractors, Westinghouse Electric Corporation and Sandia National Laboratories, spent the following years preparing to begin these experiments at the WIPP facility. While nonradioactive tests began in the 80s, radioactive waste testing required substantial preparation.

In 1991, the DOE and its contractors declared that the WIPP facility was ready to conduct waste experiments. According to the department, all necessary plant milestones had been completed satisfactorily.

My role with Westinghouse at that time involved supporting public relations campaigns and internal communications at the WIPP. After spending more than three years with the project, I resigned from Westinghouse last June.

Plan abandoned

In October 1993, DOE Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary abandoned long-standing department plans to conduct waste isolation experiments using hazardous and radioactive wastes at the WIPP site. In her decision, the secretary stated that the WIPP Test Phase Plan had not been adequately developed. This plan explained how tests featuring waste samples would be conducted at the WIPP to determine how much hydrogen and other gases would be given off by wastes decomposing in the WIPP underground.

The Test Phase Plan allowed a degree of flexibility for conducting waste experiments, recognizing the project's research and development status. Secretary O'Leary, nevertheless, rejected the plan due to its lack of specificity. WIPP-specific tests are now to be conducted at other DOE facilities, such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Meanwhile, the WIPP facility has been placed on standby, pending test results. Secretary O'Leary recognized this new strategy as "a major break with the last administration's approach" to managing the waste isolation project. Considering this decision, many experts strongly doubt whether the WIPP site will ever be used as originally intended.

What caused this change of policy regarding what had been a well-established, scientific approach to managing some of the nation's most dangerous and longest lasting wastes, after 20 years of project planning? The lack of two public relations factors is evident:

* The DOE and its contractors at the WIPP failed to build popular consensus for the project.

* The DOE and its contractors at the WIPP failed to maintain effective communications with the project's newest and most significant customer public, the Clinton administration. …

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