When the first truck hauling nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant rolled through Santa Fe, it was the worst of times. Protesters’ yells of despair disappeared into the cold night air, while police stood between them and highway.
When the truck entered Carlsbad, nearly 300 miles to the south, it was the best of times. Residents cheered as the trucks went by, their arrival a sign that a long-fought battle had been won.
Since its landmark inception March 26, 1999, more than 160 shipments have arrived in Carlsbad; approximately 19,000 shipments are expected in the site’s 35-year operating span.
The polarized attitudes between Santa Fe and Carlsbad remain entrenched. Ask most Santa Feans and they will tell you it is an unsafe project that puts everyone at risk, particularly those who live along the WIPP route. Ask most Carlsbad residents and they will assert it is an environmentally safe way to dispose of low-level nuclear waste that poses a hazard at DOE facilities across the country.
Both positions are likely to be tested as the next large-scale battle over the nation’s nuclear waste emerges: the question of where to store the country’s high-level waste.
The waste that goes to WIPP consists of contaminated materials like work boots and gloves. High-level waste is much more radioactive material, like spent nuclear fuel. Currently, such high-level waste is slated for burial at Yucca Mountain, a proposed facility in Nevada.
But ongoing controversy over Yucca Mountain—similar to the battles that were waged in New Mexico over WIPP—have raised questions about whether that facility will ever open. And if it doesn’t, everyone from local nuclear activists to Attorney General Patricia Madrid worry that...WIPP has been recommended as a possible alternative. “Should Yucca Mountain be rejected, there would be an irresistable political pressure to use WIPP as the existing hole in the ground,” said Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a Santa Fe activist group.
And if so, the battle over high-level waste will be waged in Carlsbad and Santa Fe, the key cities when it comes to New Mexico’s inextricable and ongoing relationship with nuclear waste.
This year marks SFR’s 40th anniversary. Celebrate with us by reading excerpts of stories that have graced our pages through the years. WIPP remains closed in the aftermath of a leak that was first detected in February.