It’s no secret that New Mexico is one of the nation’s hot spots for nuclear activity. We don’t have any commercial nuclear power plants, but we’ve got uranium mining, two nuclear laboratories, nuclear weapons and nuclear waste. From the Four Corners to the salt caverns near Carlsbad, we are the nation’s nuclear breadbasket—and graveyard.
Since 1999, nuclear weapons waste has been stored 2,100 feet below southeastern New Mexico at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP.
WIPP was built to accept transuranic waste—things like clothing and tools contaminated during bomb-building—not what’s called high-level waste. And definitely not the waste generated by privately owned nuclear power plants.
But the US Department of Energy has been working hard to chip away at the rules for WIPP. And now, it’s doing so with New Mexico’s help.
In March, at DOE’s request, the New Mexico Environment Department approved a change to WIPP’s permit.
Now, when nuclear sites ready their waste for WIPP, they no longer have to test and analyze its chemical composition. DOE says the measure will cut costs and reduce radiation exposure for people packing and shipping the waste to New Mexico. But it also means workers at WIPP will know less about the waste they’re moving and storing, and less about how containers may react to one another when they’re stored in those salt caverns for the next few millennia.
That’s not the only change that has me wondering about DOE’s commitment to protecting New Mexico workers.
In November 2012, NMED announced that WIPP would start accepting “hot”—more radioactive—remote-handled waste packed in a new type of container. Previously, hot waste could only be handled remotely, by machines. But the new containers are smaller, which means they’ll be unloaded and moved not by machines, but by workers.
This brings workers into closer contact with hot waste. The new containers also herald a change in shipping and storage protocol. Because, of course, one change—a protocol, a label—can easily lead to another, more significant one. During the Richardson administration, for instance, the state specifically prohibited the storage of high-level waste from Washington’s Hanford Site.
In the 1940s, Hanford began producing plutonium for atomic bombs. The factory’s plutonium work continued through the Cold War, leaving a legacy of contamination. As DOE’s website notes, plutonium work is extremely inefficient: the creation of a small amount of plutonium generates massive amounts of liquid and solid waste.
Since 1988, DOE and its private contractors have been trying to clean up the mess at Hanford, which has contaminated the facility’s 500 acres and leaked from storage tanks into groundwater and the Columbia River. Currently, 11,000 people work on that cleanup effort.
And now, DOE now wants to ship that high-level waste here. In March, DOE announced its intention to relocate radioactive waste from Hanford to WIPP. Part of that plan requires reclassifying Hanford’s high-level waste as transuranic waste so it can go to WIPP. Given the state’s track record under Gov. Susana Martinez, approval seems likely.
Don’t expect DOE to stop there. In 2012, a decades-old plan to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was abandoned. That was great news for Nevada residents, whose congressional delegation and state agencies fought the project. But it’s bad news for New Mexico. WIPP is basically a reverse Pandora’s box—and now it’s one of the few places to cram the nation’s nuclear waste.
The federal government’s other requests include opening WIPP to commercial waste from power plants, storing mercury on the surface and increasing the amount of surplus plutonium stored at WIPP.
Southeastern New Mexico offers few sustainable job opportunities. Energy development sends revenue into state coffers—where it can benefit everyone—and when it’s booming, the oil industry boosts local amenity and equipment sales. But on the whole, oil and gas development offers relatively few jobs—and even fewer stable, long-term jobs with benefits—to local people.
When it comes to granting DOE’s repeated requests, the state will no doubt point to WIPP’s impact on the local economy and chant the “jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra. Currently, the WIPP team—which includes federal and contract workers, mostly within New Mexico—consists of about 1,000 people.
But as the federal and state government continue to modify the storage facility’s permit, re-classify waste, and change rules and procedures, it’s worth wondering how many of those workers are being put at risk.
In the past 14 years, WIPP workers have received more than 11,000 shipments of nuclear waste. WIPP is under regulation for the next 10,000 years—good luck with that, civilization—but the waste will stick around for even longer.
Geographically, politically and culturally, Carlsbad is a long way from Santa Fe. But it’s time we started watching out for our neighbors in southern New Mexico. The state’s nuclear future depends on that.