The Consortium

Weirder Than Roswell: Nuclear Waste in New Mexico

By Bill Weinberg

Last summer, the strobe-eyed legions flocked to Roswell, N.M., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a supposed alien landing and an arcane government cover-up that allegedly followed. But some New Mexico residents believe a more frightening story is playing out less than 100 miles south, down U.S. 285 in sleepy Carlsbad -- where the world's first deep nuclear waste entombment facility is scheduled to start receiving radioactive materials in 1998.

The U.S. Department of Energy plugs this Waste Isolation Pilot Plant -- or WIPP -- as the smiling face of the new Clinton-era DOE, purged of Cold War abuses under the leadership of ex-secretary Hazel O'Leary and current secretary Federico Pena.

"This is the DOE flagship site," says WIPP spokesman Ken Aragon proudly. "It's all unclassified, everything is totally open. We're trying to correct history and we're doing a good job of it."

But a technician's helmet with a sticker reading "Ready for Waste in '88" suggests some of the troubles that have plagued the Carlsbad operation since it was launched in the bad old days of the Cold War when breakneck nuclear weapons production was creating the deadly mess of leaking waste at Rocky Flats, Colorado; Hanford, Washington; Savannah River, South Carolina; and Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Environmentalists, dissident citizens and some state officials insist the WIPP site was chosen for political rather than scientific reasons. They say WIPP represents an unreasonable risk to the surrounding countryside and to some of the most important water sources in the arid Southwest.

DOE and its contractor, Westinghouse, acknowledge that they still have some hoops to jump through, but are confident that they'll finally be ready for waste in '98. "We have to get the waste out of the biosphere and into deep geological disposal," Westinghouse mining engineer Stan Patchet explains.

The elevator plunging down the shaft into the WIPP facility reinforces the impression Patchet has stressed, of timeless security. The descent passes through layers of salt dating back through geological eons to a long-gone Permian sea that covered New Mexico 240 million years ago in an age before the dinosaurs.

For the first 500 feet, the shaft has a concrete liner to keep out water seepage. After that, the elevator enters a zone of salt that extends down 2,150 feet below the surface. In this salt, DOE plans call for 56 deep entombment rooms along eight corridors (or "panels").

Over the next 35 years, WIPP is to receive 6.2 million cubic feet of "trans-uranic" (or TRU) waste. Once the facility is filled, the salt will be imploded around the nuclear waste drums, making the tombs air- and water-tight -- or so DOE hopes. The waste, which will include Plutonium-239, will be dangerous for 240,000 years (10 times P-239's 24,000-year half-life).

For 100 years after enclosure, the federal government will maintain "active institutional control." That means the site is to be abandoned in the waning years of the 21st Century. The government will leave behind "monuments" to warn future generations. Inscriptions will be written in English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and "universal symbols" still under development. This phase is called "passive institutional control" and is expected to last 10,000 years.

In projecting WIPP's long-term future, the DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency have had to grapple with the question of whether the United States government even will survive into geological time.

A Crumbly Landscape

Beyond interference by man, however, is the imponderable possibility of some type of geological shift that could release the radioactive waste into the surrounding environment. On this point, government officials maintain a pluck optimism.

"I'm betting the geology will stay the same here for 10,000 years," says Stan Patchet. "No one has come up with a plausible non-intrusive scenario for a release from WIPP. Only human intrusion, perforation by mining, can cause a release. If there is no intrusion, there is no release. Everyone agrees on that."

But not exactly everyone does. David Snow, a Colorado hydrologist who was subcontracted by the Energy Department to study WIPP in 1995, is one of the skeptics.

"I'm not working for DOE now because I can't support the party line," Snow explains. "I protested the insufficient work which has been done in hydrology. Some of the obvious shortcomings of the site were blatantly ignored." Snow calls the notion of embedding the waste in salt "flawed from the outset."

Snow fears that fluid within the waste, squeezed by the imploding walls, will eventually "seek any route of egress" -- such as layers of anhydride and other rock within the salt beds.

"Each of those contacts is a potential avenue for leakage," Snow warns. Worse yet, he adds, "typically, a hydrofracture will jump from lower levels to higher levels." In other words, the fluid tends to rise to the surface.

Key to understanding the potential problem is the region's geology. Located in the Salado Formation, WIPP lies 25 miles to the east of Carlsbad, a small city of 25,000 which sits on the Pecos River. The Pecos is a tributary of the Rio Grande and a vital source of irrigation for agriculture in New Mexico and Texas.

The Guadalupe and Sacramento mountains separate the watersheds of the Pecos and Rio Grande. These mountains represent the western border of the Capitan Reef, the limestone remnant of the Permian Sea's barrier reef, which is riddled with caves carved out by water that filters down from the mountains to the west. One of these caves is the famous Carlsbad Caverns, some 40 miles south of WIPP.

Just below the land's surface is a layer known as a Rustler formation made up of karst, an unstable and soft rock structure permeated by water channels. Local farms drill wells into this formation to access the groundwater.

The Nash Draw, a large karst formation west of the WIPP site, drains to the small Salt Lakes east of the Pecos River. WIPP officials insist that the Nash Draw does not extend to the site and that on-site water either is used by plants or evaporates. WIPP critics, however, dispute that contention.

"WIPP's Rustler layer drains to the Salt Lakes and eventually the Pecos River," claims Lokesh Chaturvedi of the New Mexico Environmental Evaluation Group. "There's no question about it."

Oil Temptations

There is also salty water deeper in the earth, where Permian brine has gathered. And below that, 7,000 feet down, is oil, once the pillar of the local economy and still the county's second biggest employer after WIPP. This is where possible "human intrusion" enters the picture.

With oil and natural gas wells jabbing through the earth, other possibilities exist for fracturing the geological formations around WIPP. About 100 new oil and gas wells have opened within two miles of the WIPP site since it was built, some reaching right to its border. One actually uses a slant drill to access a lease within the borders of the WIPP site at 13,466 feet.

"WIPP is now surrounded by perhaps the highest rate of drilling for any four-square-mile piece of real estate anywhere," says Chaturvedi. That oil exploitation, he believes, may be destabilizing the geology. There was a small earthquake in the vicinity in 1996. Its epicenter was across the state line in Texas, and there is speculation that it was due to the oil industry's massive removal of geological brine for well-injection.

Others fear that brine injection to clear out oil remnants could filter into the WIPP tunnels. There is evidence that brine does move through the local geology. One independent oil developer won a suit against Texaco after his well was blown out by a Texaco brine injection two miles away. Thousands of barrels of brine spewed out onto the desert floor. It took three days to get the well under control. That 1991 blowout was just 40 miles from WIPP.

Corrosion from microbial degradation of organic components in the waste could be another danger. The waste could generate gases, which could mix with water to create potentially explosive conditions. A 1990 memo by Scott Slezak of DOE's Sandia Laboratories sketched a "worst-case" scenario of a potentially explosive mixture of methane, hydrogen and oxygen developing five years after the site is sealed.

In 1958, waste stored at the Soviets' Kyshtym weapons reactor near Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains exploded. It killed hundreds of people, contaminated rivers and forced evacuation of villages. Even after Chernobyl, the 1958 disaster is considered the world's worst nuclear accident.

Snow finds the chances for any repetition at WIPP "a pretty remote possibility." But Snow adds that "even DOE doesn't know everything that's in the waste, because they don't want to open the drums to find out."

Scientific Distrust

Despite DOE's assurances, some local residents fear the worst. "It's gonna leak," says Carlsbad anti-WIPP activist Betty Richards. "That's the bottom line. They'll say I'm not entitled to say that because I don't have a PhD. There was a group in town that opposed WIPP a few years back, but they got scared off by the science."

Richards doesn't buy the science and insists that skepticism has been dampened by the need for WIPP jobs. "The locals are like cannon fodder for DOE," she argues. "Here, it used to be you grow up and get a job at a mine. Now it's WIPP."

Her husband, Bob Gaston, concurs. "It's not based on science," he says. "It's here 'cuz the local people here won't fight it."

In the early 1980s when WIPP construction began, oil (and potash) prices were depressed and a desperate Carlsbad welcomed WIPP as an economic savior. Since then, oil prices have bounced back up. But WIPP has been Eddy County's top employer for nearly two decades.

Richards and Gaston took me on a tour to demonstrate the unstable local geology. The Mobley Ranch Road turns abruptly at one point -- due to a sinkhole opening where the road once was. They note another sinkhole near the Gnome site where the old Atomic Energy Commission exploded a test nuclear bomb in 1961. Typical of karst, the surface rock is crumbly and breaks under the impact of rain.

"Everytime you come out here, it's different," says Gaston. "The place is like Swiss cheese and we're six miles from WIPP. The holes get bigger and bigger. WIPP refuses to use the word, 'karst,' and this is the world's biggest karst field."

"DOE says it's changing its tactics and it's not," insists Richards. "They're using the same cover-up tactics they've always used, and treating the public like the enemy."

New Mexico Attorney General Tom Udall objects, too. "The way DOE works is what I would call 'DAD' -- decide, announce, defend. ... There have been many behind-closed-doors negotiations between EPA and DOE which I believe violate the spirit of the law."

Protesting this secrecy, Udall sued to block WIPP's opening. But a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled against Udall in June 1997.

Safety Questions

WIPP's tortured history twists back a quarter century, to 1972 when the Atomic Energy Commission decided that the salt beds of southeast New Mexico were the spot for the national nuclear waste dump. In 1978, the WIPP project was unveiled with a price tag of $1 billion (that estimate has since soared to $19 billion).

That same year, a U.S. Geological Survey report recommended against the use of salt for containment of nuclear waste for fear that heat would interact with water to create steam and possibly underground explosions. But the report referred to "high level" waste, not WIPP's lower-grade "trans-uranic" waste, which generates far less heat. Nonetheless, President Carter cancelled WIPP.

The project got a new life, however, when President Reagan took office in 1981. Reagan also commissioned a second "high-level" waste facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Westinghouse broke ground on WIPP in 1981. Soon, there were legal challenges from local activists and environmentalists which slowed but didn't stop WIPP.

The legal battles often pitted prominent New Mexico politicians against one another. For instance, in 1992, Rep. Joe Skeen, a Republican who represents most of southern New Mexico, pushed legislation to cut EPA and public participation in the WIPP approval process. But his Democratic rival, Rep. Bill Richardson from northern New Mexico prevailed, winning EPA oversight.

Under the law, EPA has until May 16, 1998, to give final approval to WIPP's ability to hold waste for 10,000 years. New Mexico's Environment Department also must clear WIPP for its ability to receive and bury waste over the next 35 years. Though the department is under the WIPP-friendly Gov. Gary Johnson, this approval could be a problem because WIPP's waste rooms already are starting to cave in. The walls were supposed to hold up through at least a five-year test period during which the waste could be removed.

Critics also note that neither the EPA nor the state require outside oversight of WIPP after approval for the 35-year period or the 10,000-year period. "We're giving them free reign -- the same people who brought us Rocky Flats and Hanford," says Don Hancock of the Southwest Research & Information Center.

Many New Mexicans already see their state as the federal government's radioactive dumping ground and don't want more. "Depleted uranium" artillery shells are tested in the mountains outside Socorro. Nuclear triggers are manufactured at Los Alamos National Laboratories. Local farmers have sued the federal government over insufficient compensation for evacuation from their ranches by the White Sands Missile Range, where the world's first atomic bomb exploded in 1945.

Hell on Wheels?

But other states, where federal nuclear wastes are temporarily stored, are clamoring for WIPP's opening. Indeed, the danger of wastes leaking into rivers and groundwater in other parts of the country is one of DOE's strongest cards on WIPP's behalf. Gov. Phil Batt of Idaho -- home to the deadly wastes from Idaho National Labs -- has vowed to sue DOE if WIPP does not go on line as scheduled.

DOE says some 60 million Americans -- nearly one-quarter of the population -- now live within 50 miles of military-related nuclear waste storage sites. DOE claims that WIPP could cut that number to four million, a figure the opponents protest as misleading.

Waste slated for WIPP accounts for only 0.01 percent of America's total nuclear waste (including that from commercial reactors), and only 1.9 percent of military-related nuclear waste, critics note. The WIPP waste does not include TRU wastes already buried at other DOE sites, "low-level" wastes and "high-level" wastes.

Waste delivery is another point of controversy. The DOE projects that 25,000 shipments of nuclear waste will travel the nation's highways to WIPP over the next 35 years. DOE already has an "open corridor" along Interstates 82, 84, 80 and 25 to link Idaho National Labs, Rocky Flats and Hanford to WIPP.

The specially designed trucks, called Trans-Uranic Packaging Transporter or Trupact, are to be monitored by the DOE/Pentagon Transcom satellite tracking system with stations in San Diego and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, coordinating the shipments and emergency response. DOE is still working on an "open corridor" between WIPP and facilities in the East.

Though residents along the WIPP route are less than thrilled about radioactive waste rolling by their towns, the federal government has sweetened the deal with $300 million for highway improvements. Gov. Gary Johnson touts the new four-lane highway that will link Los Alamos to Carlsbad as crucial to commercial development. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., calls the plan "a great boon ... for economic development in southeast New Mexico."

But the plans have angered other New Mexicans. When Energy Secretary Pena visited Albuquerque last April, Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping staged protests, accusing him of "handing out money so that New Mexicans will overlook the dangers of WIPP."

To calm fears, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is planning nuclear road accident exercises along the WIPP route. But to many critics, the government's new certainty about its plans for entombing nuclear waste deep in the New Mexican earth smacks of the same hubris that caused the problem in the first place.

"We're going to have to care for this stuff for decades if not centuries to come," says Don Hancock. "We have to keep the sites where the waste is as safe as possible, but ... we can't solve the nuclear waste problem until we stop creating nuclear waste. ... We've been creating waste from nuclear bombs for 55 years, so this shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody."

Some scientists believe the best idea might be to leave the nuclear waste where it is for now while better strategies are developed for handling it.

"We can't solve the problem in our generation," Hancock concludes. "We need to pass it on to future generations responsibly. WIPP doesn't do that." ~

Copyright (c) 1997

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