Let WIPP expand again?

New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad is still the only long-term storage site for nuclear waste in the United States. It might be about to get longer-term and riskier.

WIPP holds radioactive materials 2000 feet underground in hollowed-out deposits of salt, believed to be geologically stable. Theoretically the waste can stay forever and do no harm.

WIPP was designated to hold only moderately risky waste, called transuranic or TRU, like clothing and tools contaminated by plutonium, packed in scientifically designed containers that would last for centuries without leaking (except for accidents like the one in 2014 that closed the operation for three years).

WIPP has been storing TRU waste since 1999, from Los Alamos, Rocky Flats in Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina and other places, trucked across New Mexico highways. New Mexico received federal funding to improve our roads, including the bypass around Santa Fe. Not nearly enough.

This so-called pilot project was supposed to start winding down in 2024. But that does not appear to be happening. The nation has excess plutonium, and the Department of Energy is eyeing WIPP as the place to put it.

Of course. There is no other place. The original understanding was that states would share the burden of permanently housing this dangerous material, but other states have successfully resisted. Texas just passed legislation opposing long-term storage (Forbes Magazine called Texas “Atomic Chickens”). So there’s just WIPP, and places like Hanford, Washington, where lethal nuclear waste is sitting at ground level because nobody will take it.

The Department of Energy wants to construct add-ons to WIPP that opponents characterize as preludes to a larger expansion. These have to be approved by the New Mexico Environment Department. We are awaiting findings from hearings in May and early September.

Possible expansion of WIPP is not the only issue. Other concerns are the type of material and how far it will travel.

The bigger picture, in a very simplified version that I hope I’m explaining correctly, is to take clumps or “pits” of plutonium from the Pantex plant near Amarillo, to Los Alamos to be turned into powder, then to the Savannah River DOE site in South Carolina for more processing, then finally to WIPP for burial. The plutonium would cross part of the country three times.

Plutonium is one of the most toxic substances on earth and lasts for thousands of years. One microscopic particle can give you cancer. A major reason for burying plutonium is to put it where it can’t ever fall into the hands of terrorists.

For years, this stuff has been crossing New Mexico, sharing the road with New Mexico drivers and oil industry trucks. Some of that traffic is on US 285, which runs southward, skirting Santa Fe and south through Roswell and Artesia into oil country where the oil boom has overstressed the roads.

Plutonium, I think, is much more dangerous on the road than once it stops moving and is buried forever underground. Any decision on expansion should have major input from people who live near 285 and any other road designated for WIPP traffic.

Here’s my modest proposal. New Mexico is doing way more than its share of storing nuclear waste, while other states shirk responsibility. I am not one bit in favor of expansion. But if the state decides to allow the expansion, taking all that risk, don’t pussyfoot about the cost. Hold all those Atomic Chicken states – from Maine to California — hostage until they pay the real cost. All of it.

No more half-adequate road subsidies. Tax every molecule of plutonium. Make them pay until every New Mexican is a millionaire and we can tear up our gross receipts tax.  

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2021

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