On the road to N.M.
Activists gather to protest planned shipping of nuclear wastes to WIPP

Colorado Daily Staff Writer

Activists from Boulder to Santa Fe, N.M., prepared Thursday for a weekend of demonstrations to try stop the federal government from shipping radioactive waste to the nation's first underground nuclear waste dump.

The Department of Energy was originally scheduled to ship its first batch of transuranic waste early Thursday from Los Alamos, N.M., to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an excavated repository 2,150 feet beneath the desert near Carlsbad, N.M. The waste consists mainly of radioactively contaminated clothing, tools and dirt.

However, the shipment was delayed by fog, said Anne Elliott, a DOE spokeswoman in Carlsbad. Elliott said the DOE would try again Thursday evening and that the shipment should arrive at the WIPP facility at 4 a.m. today.

A federal judge on Tuesday dropped a 1992 injunction that had prevented WIPP from opening, and the DOE — which has tried to open the facility for more than 20 years — promptly announced it would start shipping waste this week.

While the ruling only applied to a specific batch of waste at Los Alamos, government officials hope — and environmentalists fear — that it could open the gates for subsequent shipments of thousands of truckloads of waste from all over the country, including Rocky Flats, the former nuclear bomb factory south of Boulder.

Environmental groups, which argue that WIPP will leak and that transportation of waste to the facility would put millions of people at risk, have descended on New Mexico pledging to halt the shipments.

“There are people who are waiting and willing to do what they can, non-violently, to stop the trucks,” said Tom Marshall of Boulder's Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, in a telephone interview Thursday from Santa Fe. “Our hope is that there will be more (people) coming down over the weekend.”

Those who were unable to travel to New Mexico gathered Thursday at noon for a demonstration in front of the Boulder County courthouse. Protesters collected signatures from people opposing WIPP, handed out flyers and painted banners in preparation of a “die-in” demonstration planned for Saturday at Rocky Flats.

“They want to contaminate another spot in the earth with tons and tons and tons of radioactive waste,” said Betty Ball of the Peace and Justice Center, speaking to the Pearl Street Mall lunch crowd. “We're not gonna let this happen.”

If WIPP opens, trucks loaded with nuclear waste could start rolling later this month from Idaho, straight down Interstate Highway 25 through the heart of Denver, Ball warned.

According to the DOE's own figures, close to 26,000 truckloads of transuranic waste would come through Colorado from nuclear-complex sites in Washington state and Idaho. Only 2,500 shipments would originate from Rocky Flats. An average of two to three truckloads would pass through Denver every day for the next 30 years.

WIPP opponents say this would put millions of people along the highways at risk of accidents, and they argue that it would be safer to store the waste where it is until scientists find a way to make it safe.

Politicians who support WIPP — including Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., and Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo. — argued that the opening of the facility is essential in order to meet the goal of cleaning up Rocky Flats by the year 2006.

“If Rocky Flats is to stay on schedule, we must find locations for the disposal of wastes,” Udall said in a news release.

But environmentalists have pointed out that only about 10 percent of the waste at Rocky Flats is scheduled to go to WIPP, and much of what remains has nowhere to go.

“Rocky Flats is still going to be contaminated,” Ball said.

LeRoy Moore of the Peace and Justice Center said that once the waste is buried at WIPP, it cannot be retrieved if it starts leaking or if scientists develop a way to neutralize it. Plutonium in the waste will remain radioactive for 240,000 years.

Moore blasted Udall for his support of the facility.

“Mark Udall ran as an environmental candidate,” but now he appears to have abandoned his platform, Moore said.

Moore said Udall, who was elected by an extremely narrow margin, may be repaying the Democratic National Committee for its heavy campaign support, which included a visit by Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson.

“Perhaps this is why he has — sadly, I would say — forgotten his environmental platform,” Moore said, urging people to call Udall and ask him to reverse his position.

Ball questioned why the DOE was rushing to ship waste to WIPP, considering that the waste is safe, for the time being, where it is.

Marshall speculated that the DOE might be trying to score a symbolic victory after decades of frustration trying to open WIPP, but he predicted the strategy might backfire.

“Their feeling is probably that a symbolic opening will break the back of the opposition,” Marshall said. “I think it's gonna galvanize the opposition.”