Dispatches, May 1998
A small cluster of white buildings 26 miles east of Carlsbad punctuates the emptiness of New Mexico's southeastern desert with what appears to be a reassuring sign of human habitation. The billboard at the entrance seems innocuous enough: waste isolation pilot plant. But the facility's hidden business end has a more sinister mien. More than 2,000 feet beneath the sagebrush, crews from Westinghouse have bored seven chambers, each 33 feet wide, 13 feet high, and as long as a football field. Linked by seven miles of tunnels, the artificial caves, which eventually will number 56, are designed to serve as a mass tomb for thousands of tons of safety gear, tools, glassware, rags, and other debris contaminated by radioactive isotopes during the production of nuclear warheads.
Filling these subterranean cells with the detritus of the Cold War and then sealing the contents behind walls of concrete like the corpse of a latter-day Fortunato will mark the first step in the U.S. government's effort to put the rubble of the atomic age to final rest. WIPP, as it is known to foe and friend alike, has for years stood as a bŠte noire of antinuclear activists who say that the manner in which the U.S. government is proposing to clean up its radioactive waste could be as perilous as the doomsday industry that created it. Since 1981, WIPP has inspired a barrage of demonstrations, petitions, and lawsuits that first delayed the project and then stopped it cold. Now, however, time may be running out on the naysayers. If all goes as planned, truckloads of radioactive debris could begin arriving at the nation's first permanent nuclear-waste repository by the beginning of this month.
For decades, bomb builders at warhead plants such as Rocky Flats, near Denver, and New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory disposed of their toxic junk by burying it in shallow trenches or stuffing it willy-nilly into 55-gallon drums. In scientific terms, the material in question is "transuranic" — tainted by exposure to man-made isotopes, mainly plutonium, that have atomic numbers higher than that of uranium. In layman's terms, plutonium is just plain lethal: Infinitesimally small amounts of the stuff can cause bone and lung cancer. Now the Department of Energy, assigned to sweep up the Cold War's grim leavings, says WIPP offers a safe place to stash this poisonous trash for à well, for pretty much the rest of eternity.
And indeed, at first glance WIPP seems to meet the requirements for a radioactive landfill: Its location is remote (Carlsbad is the nearest town), sparsely populated (fewer than 30 people live within ten miles), and geologically stable (225 million years without a major upheaval). The plant has its own fire department, ambulance service, and rescue teams. And the waste itself will be transported in $267,000 stainless-steel canisters designed to withstand high-speed collisions and 1,450-degree jet fuel infernos.
So what's wrong with this picture?
Plenty, say critics. Among their concerns is the fact that, according to the DOE's own data, the 37,000 tractor-trailer sorties needed to transport those 850,000 drums of transuranic waste will result in about 50 accidents — a statistic made more ominous now that at least one new bypass route intended to deflect WIPP shipments from densely populated areas has been scrapped. For Don Hancock, a director at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, this touches on WIPP's central conundrum: the government's insistence that transuranic waste is too dangerous to be left where it is, but safe enough to be hauled through 23 states. "Nobody knows what's really in those drums," says Hancock. "The safest thing to do would be to leave the waste where it is."
Perhaps, but after enduring years of delay and spending $2 billion (the final cost will be $7.7 billion), federal and corporate bureaucrats believe they have a green light to ram the project through. "I'm not trivializing anyone else's concerns," says Dan Balduini, a WIPP spokesman, "but we have a repository that will comply with regulations, and there is no reason not to move forward. We need to get on with it. WIPP is a first step."
What the Energy Department is loath to mention, however, is that it's a very tiny step. WIPP has been sold to U.S. taxpayers with the argument that it will hold the 2.5 million cubic feet of transuranic waste now accounted for and the 3.7 million cubic feet expected to result from bomb-plant decommissioning over the next 40 years. That may sound impressive, but it's less than 2 percent of the radioactive military residue stacked or buried around the country. In other words, WIPP will take care of only a speck of America's nuclear-waste stockpile. What happens to the rest? That's a question that tends to produce embarrassed coughs and nervous paper-shuffling on the part of DOE officials. "The Energy Department is telling people, 'Help us get WIPP open because it will solve our problem,'" says Hancock. "But WIPP is not the cornerstone of the nation's waste-disposal problem. Whenever that claim is made, it's PR bull."
This war of rhetoric has only become more confusing — and more surreal — in light of several bizarre incidents related to WIPP's impending debut. Last summer, for example, a giant swarm of killer bees invaded the site, forcing a temporary work halt. Then in late February, a man in Farmington, New Mexico, was arrested for selling "California Red Superworms," which he claimed could digest nuclear waste. A group of would-be entrepreneurs bought "breeding stock" for $125 a pound after the scam artist told them that WIPP needed to be supplied with nine tons of worms per month. (The Energy Department says the scheme is pure fertilizer.)
Despite such antics, protesters are finding little to laugh at as the clock winds down. At the moment, a single obstacle remains: final approval from the Environmental Protection Agency, which gave a tentative OK last year. So, barring last-minute injunctions, trucks hauling trash dusted with plutonium that has a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years will soon be rolling along interstate highways and through several small towns. "The facility actually increases the risk posed by weapons waste," says Margret Carde, a board member of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety in Santa Fe. "Meanwhile, the Energy Department will tell us that the remaining waste cannot be cleaned up and that we must accept 'national sacrifice zones.' The essential tragedy of WIPP," she declares, "is that it solves nothing."
Photograph by Chip Simons; illustration by Mick Aarestrup