Nuclear Nerves

Governor says she’s concerned about possible increase in radioactive shipments through Santa Fe County, but a bigger worry remains

Santa Fe-area activists and residents have been sounding the alarm that more nuclear waste shipments will soon be traveling through the county on their way to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant—the nation’s only long-term storage facility for transuranic radioactive waste, located near Carlsbad.

Equal parts questions and foreboding answers have dominated two recent town halls hosted by Santa Fe County officials and anti-nuclear activists. While the US Department of Energy is not exactly forthcoming about the future, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says such expansion would be limited to the capacity of state vehicle inspections.

The Energy Department must submit to inspections for all WIPP trucks and trucks that leave Los Alamos National Laboratory under an intergovernmental agreement. New Mexico State Police conducts those inspections—averaging about six or seven a week with the capacity for 20. The agency does not plan to hire additional staff to increase inspection capabilities, Lt. Mark Soriano writes in an email to SFR.

The Department of Energy tells SFR the rate of shipments to WIPP is “expected to increase to 10-12 shipments per week” over the next few months, but it has also put in requests with the state to expand the facility’s underground capabilities and announced earlier this year that it was going to prepare an environmental impact statement to dispose of surplus plutonium at WIPP.

A spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham says the governor is concerned about the possibility of future WIPP expansion and the notion of increased nuclear materials shipments through the state. But Lujan Grisham believes there’s a more pressing, immediate problem embedded in New Mexico’s long relationship with the nuclear industry and all that comes with it.

Her “biggest concern,” Nora Meyers Sackett, the spokeswoman, says, is that the US Department of Energy “continues to prioritize shipments from other states to...WIPP while failing to expedite cleanup of waste at Los Alamos” National Laboratory.

Lujan Grisham says the Energy Department’s position is “unacceptable,” Meyers Sackett tells SFR in a series of answers to emailed questions.

In February, the New Mexico Environment Department sued DOE over what it says is a “continuing pattern of delay and noncompliance” of legacy waste cleanup at Los Alamos, asking for a court-supervised process to resolve the issue. In its initial answer to the lawsuit, DOE “denies that [the state] is entitled to the relief it seeks.” Settlement negotiations in federal court are ongoing.

Locally, the limitation on shipment inspections eases some minds, including Commissioner Hank Hughes, who, along with Commissioner Anna Hamilton, hosted the first town hall in August. Commissioner Anna Hansen hosted a similar discussion in October.

“That’s maybe a little bit reassuring that the state has a little bit of control there,” Hughes tells SFR. “If the shipments are limited to not much more than we have now, then I guess the chance of accidents would not be a whole lot more, either.”

Cynthia Weehler, an anti-nuclear activist with community group 285ALL, doesn’t feel the same sense of reassurance.

“It doesn’t address the issue of the new mission of WIPP,” Weehler says, referring to the current shipment cap. “They’re [the governor’s office] referring to the old mission.”

Activists’ concerns that WIPP is expanding are far from baseless.

Several permit modification requests from DOE—one to excavate a new shaft and another to build two new underground chambers that entomb containers of waste—and an operating permit renewal application for the facility are pending approval by the environment department.

An energy department spokeswoman told SFR the department doesn’t consider its applications “expansion,” but nuclear watchdogs like Don Hancock, director of nuclear waste safety for the Southwest Research and Information Center, say the requests are being used as a piecemeal way to expand the facility.

On top of those modification requests, the energy department issued a notice of intent in December to prepare an environmental impact statement for its plan to dilute and dispose of surplus plutonium transuranic waste from the Cold War.

Under the “dilute and dispose” plan, surplus plutonium would be transported from the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, to LANL, where it would be turned into an oxide powder. The powder would then be shipped to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where it would be further diluted before returning to New Mexico.

A draft environmental impact statement is expected to be released by the end of the year.

The dilute and dispose plan is part of what the governor’s office is referring to in claiming DOE is prioritizing shipments from other states to WIPP.

Weehler worries about an accident, the odds of which would go up with increased shipments under WIPP’s plans for expansion, and that emergency responders wouldn’t be able to respond fast enough before people were exposed.

County Emergency Management Director Martin Vigil says the county is prepared to quickly respond to an accident and treat anyone who was exposed to radiation. He adds that after the initial response, the county would have a low level of involvement because state and federal agencies would step in.

While the governor’s office is concerned about DOE’s priorities, the WIPP Transportation Safety Program—which provides training for first responders, hospitals and clinics along the shipping routes—is “very robust and touches all disciplines of response ensuring that communities are equipped with trained and capable responders and tools to ensure a rapid response to any transportation incident on the highway,” Meyers Sackett writes in an email.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.