While protesters cry foul, the U.S. government prepares to throw open the gates of the nation’s first permanent plut…
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Photograph by Chip Simons; illustration by Mick Aarestrup