With a click and a whirr, the mesh-walled cage suddenly began to drop away from the yellow-lit ceiling above. The circle of light grew smaller, to the size of a frying pan, a coffee can lid, a nickel; finally, a quarter mile down, there was nothing to illuminate the inside of the cage but beams of light from miner's lamps fencing with each other in the dark.
In the absence of light, the sound of the elevator echoing off the shaft bored into ancient salt beds, grabbed the passengers' attention. As they stood listening to the pervasive hum of hot machinery, the elevator suddenly passed an invisible barrier:
The echoes from the wall became hushed and softer, the air warmer.
"You'll hear the differences when we get into the salt beds about two-thirds the way down," Sandia National Laboratories geologist Susan Pickering had told the passengers before they entered the elevator in the sterile room above. "It gets a lot quieter."
A 2,150-foot journey down into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) east of Carlsbad can feel like a ride on a phantasmagorical Disneyland ride—until you stop to think about what the multi-million dollar project is intended for: The long-term storage of radioactive waste from nuclear weapons manufacture. With the recent passage of legislation approving the experimental storage of nuclear weapons waste at WIPP, it became more likely that 55-gallon drums of radioactive garbage will soon replace sightseers and journalists on the huge elevators at the site, perhaps as early as August.
The theory behind WIPP is a decades old strategy by America's nuclear weapons braintrust: Radioactive waste that will be hazardous for thousands of years need to be put away somewhere deep, dark and inaccessible. The Carlsbad site, selected in 1975, has since become the great hope for an industry that is up to its ears in teetering barrels of waste scattered around the country.
Eventually, if the project goes forward, 800,000 barrels of existing and future waste, all generated by weapons production, will be deposited in the salt beds over WIPP's 25-year lifespan. The entire works would then be sealed off and marked for generations 10,000 years hence, although scientists are still working out those details.