by Marylia Kelley
The flatbed truck left Los Alamos Lab in New Mexico at 7:49 PM on Thursday, March 26, and headed south on U.S. 285 for about 270 miles - to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, NM. Loaded in the truck was 600 pounds of plutonium-contaminated waste. The trip was reported to have taken around 7.5 hours.
In truth, that journey took the Dept. of Energy 25 years and $2 billion. When the nuclear debris reached its destination at about 4 AM on Friday, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson called it "a truly historic moment."
Was it, really? What is WIPP? Will it solve the nuclear waste problem? If so, why have environmentalists toiled such long hours for two decades and more - in courtrooms, on picket lines and in offices piled high with technical reports - to stop it? Why had the state of New Mexico also sought to enjoin its opening? Why is DOE putting nuclear waste in WIPP without first obtaining a hazardous waste permit?
WIPP is the DOE's proposed deep geologic repository for nuclear weapons-generated transuranic waste (containing radioactive elements heavier than uranium, mostly plutonium). WIPP is being excavated in an ancient salt bed 2,150 feet below the ground. Still under construction, WIPP will ultimately contain 16 square miles of buried plutonium wastes, including up to 850,000 55-gallon drums entombed in 56 rooms, each 300 feet long by 33 feet wide.
WIPP will leak. Much of the waste slated for WIPP is contaminated with plutonium 239, which has a radioactive half-life of over 24,000 years. A radioactive element's hazardous life is generally calculated at 10 half-lives, in this case 240,000 years.
The WIPP site is surrounded by proven oil and gas reserves and potash deposits. Future mining and drilling operations could hit the waste rooms, releasing massive amounts of radioactivity to the surface. Other drilling operations, such as fluid injection, could cause radioactive releases at WIPP even if the original operation is kept outside the site boundary. Experts don't understand the groundwater system at WIPP very well. The Rustler aquifer, which sits above the WIPP waste rooms has fractures and caverns in it that could transport waste, eventually contaminating drinking water supplies. Pressurized brine reservoirs under the WIPP site could bring wastes to the surface as well. These reservoirs contain large amounts of salt water under high pressure.
DOE is seeking, but does not yet have, a hazardous waste permit from the state of New Mexico. The permit is required because DOE will dispose of mixed transuranic wastes at WIPP. These are wastes that are contaminated with both a chemical hazard (like a solvent) and a radioactive element such as plutonium. States can regulate DOE's hazardous (chemical) wastes. Therefore, WIPP must have an operating permit. However, DOE is the sole regulator for all the radioactive waste in the weapons complex. DOE is essentially forcing the premature opening of WIPP by bringing in a shipment of "purely" radioactive waste from Los Alamos.
Never mind that this waste is from NASA activities, and that WIPP is supposed to be for military wastes only. And, never mind that significant controversy exists over whether the Los Alamos waste was classified properly. DOE's aim was to get waste, any waste, into WIPP and preempt the state's ability to impose limits through its permitting authority.
DOE plans to bring 40,000 truck loads of transuranic waste to WIPP over the next 30 years. Most of it will come from California (including from Livermore Lab), Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Tennessee, North Carolina and Washington state. DOE estimates these shipments will result in 6 deaths and 48 injuries from accidents and that 3 people will die from radiation exposure during "accident free" shipments.
WIPP is part of the DOE's nuclear waste "shell game," a dangerous enterprise that puts deadly wastes on our highways, moving them around the country and substituting "out of sight - out of mind" for a sound policy.
Estimates are WIPP will cost around $20 billion. Storing waste where it is would cost about $3 billion. Moreover, WIPP will not come close to solving the country's nuclear waste problems, not by any standard of measurement. WIPP is designed to handle less than 2% of the existing volume of nuclear bomb-generated radioactive wastes. Even if one calculates the transuranic wastes alone, WIPP is proposed for only about one-third of DOE's existing TRU waste.
Yet, Secretary Richardson sent out a press release to say that WIPP will safely clean up the nuclear weapons complex. So, what gives? Perhaps, WIPP's main use is not for waste disposal, but rather for its public relations value. If DOE can convince enough people that it has taken care of its waste problems, then currently operational weapons facilities like Livermore Lab will face less pressure to cut down on the future production of nuclear wastes. Transuranic wastes will continue to be generated. And we will put them... where?