The most radioactive state
Who will be the ultimate bearer of the nation’s nuclear waste?
In Mashable’s series Wasted, we dig into the myriad ways we’re trashing our planet. Because it’s time to sober up.
When future tourists journey through a desolate, sun-baked patch of the southeastern New Mexico desert, some 20 miles outside of the 21st-century oil boomtown of Carlsbad, they’ll spot dozens of giant pillars on the flat terrain, somewhat like the great stone heads looming on the treeless hills of Easter Island. If the intrigued desert visitors wander close enough to the 25-foot high granite monuments, erected by the United States Department of Energy, they’ll see inscriptions written in seven different, perhaps archaic, languages.
And if they dare wander past the perimeter of the grandiose columns, the travelers will find an open-air structure made of 15-foot high walls, emblazoned with frightening pictographs and symbols. Taken together, the U.S. agency hopes to convey a clear message to anyone who enters.
Keep out. Leave. Don’t dig. Something bad lurks beneath the ground. “This ‘stay out’ sign warns future generations of the danger of intrusion,” the Department of Energy wrote in its blueprint of this imposing message.
In 1990, the agency convened a group of linguists, writers, anthropologists, and an assortment of other scientists to think about how, in centuries or thousands of years (perhaps long after the fall of the U.S. empire), they might discourage people from revealing what lay 2,000 feet below the rocky soil and dashing roadrunners: hundreds of thousands of containers filled with radioactive sludge, soil, mops, brooms, and gloves from the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons program. The sealed casks would be a danger for at least 10 millennia.
Today, the edifices in this corner of southeastern New Mexico are profoundly less romantic than the government’s designs for foreboding temple-like grounds. Here lies the fenced compound of the beige, block buildings of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, where the federal government has trucked in radioactive waste for 20 years and counting, and where the waste will stay, forever.
Of course, most of the radioactive waste in the U.S. today isn’t stored in New Mexico. Rather, much of the nuclear rummage is the spent radioactive fuel from power plants, similar to the infamous facility depicted in The Simpsons. These plants have produced much of the electricity that has powered televisions, blow dryers, refrigerators, and Christmas lights across the nation for well over half a century. But this radioactive fuel, a “higher-level” nuclear material, isn’t permitted at WIPP today, which deals only with waste from defense-related activities, like building bombs. Instead, the waste is scattered around the country at the very nuclear power plants where it was used, because the U.S. hasn’t decided on a place to permanently deposit the deadly dross. But the concrete and metal storage casks, often stockpiled directly on the surface in places like the idyllic California coast, age, crack, and decay over time. The waste can’t stay there forever.
“It’s got to go somewhere,” said Allison Macfarlane, the former chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission and professor of science and technology policy at George Washington University.
“The worst option is leaving it above ground indefinitely,” stressed Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist and expert in nuclear weapons policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy group.
Vicky Leta | Mashable
Today, nobody knows where America’s commercial nuclear waste will ultimately find its radioactive grave. Not your congressional representative, not the Department of Energy, not any president (past, present, and future), and not nuclear waste experts. “I will not tell you where the waste should go,” said Macfarlane, emphasizing that dictating to any community — whether Nevada, New Mexico, or elsewhere — where the radioactive byproducts will go is a failed strategy. It is arrogant, and understandably meets vigorous resistance.
That’s because there’s no good place to store the forever waste. “There’s no best option. There’s only the least bad option,” said Lyman. But, of all the states in the union, and to the certain dismay of many local residents, New Mexico presently has the potential to become the future bearer of more and more of the nation’s nuclear excesses.
Though New Mexico will resist, and may prevail. “Folks in New Mexico are not going to take it,” said Albuquerque resident Don Hancock, who is the director of the Nuclear Waste Safety program at the Southwest Research and Information Center, an advocacy group focused on environmental and social justice. “We’ll stop this.”
Still, the Land of Enchantment has WIPP. And the Department of Energy wants to keep this “experiment” — which collects “low-level” wastes from the nuclear defense activities like the once-secretive Manhattan Project — running until at least 2050.
“It’s got to go somewhere.”
WIPP is the only deep geologic repository — meaning buried under hundreds or thousands of feet of earth — for nuclear waste in the nation. In fact, it’s the only such operating nuclear storage site on Earth. Even after a drum of waste exploded in 2014, closing WIPP down for three years, some local residents still gathered on a Saturday at midnight in April 2017, to welcome, with cheers, the return of more nuclear waste. WIPP was back.
No matter your views on nuclear energy, which currently powers 20 percent of the nation while emitting no heat-trapping carbon dioxide into our already carbon-saturated skies, the radioactive byproducts can’t sit out on the California coastline, beside New York’s Hudson River, and in the middle of Texas, forever.
“WIPP could be expanded and the nation’s nuclear fuel from reactors could go there,” said Peter Burns, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences at the University of Notre Dame and an expert in nuclear waste disposal. (Burns wasn’t promoting that it should go there — only that it potentially could).
Deep beneath the New Mexican ground, the waste would sit under 250 million-year-old rock. You’d have to really try to find it. And you’d have to ignore the cryptic warnings, engraved in pictographs and words over 2,000 feet above by a society called the United States of America.
“I think it would be quite safe for an extremely long time,” said Burns.
Burns has visited the deepest bowels of WIPP.
It’s different than most mines. “It’s very clean down there,” he said. That’s because of the ivory walls of salt.
Some 250 million years ago, before the age of dinosaurs, a great, shallow sea sloshed over New Mexico. After eons of evaporation, and more evaporation, this sea left behind an immense 2,000-foot thick bed of salt. The Department of Energy has carved low ceilinged, rectangular rooms into these ancient, hardened salt deposits. That’s where the waste goes.
Before WIPP’s 2014 explosion, Burns, leading a stirring geology field trip around the Southwest, brought students down to see the white-walled mines. The presence of rigorously sealed nuclear waste containers wasn’t too unsettling for him, but the notion of being in the deep, deep underworld was. “It’s a little unnerving at first,” he said.
The WIPP mines.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Among many experts, there’s little doubt WIPP can safely store the radiated wrenches, clothes, and dirt from the nation’s nuclear defense activities in these remote rooms. “WIPP is a logical place for that — provided safety and security can be maintained,” Lyman said.
WIPP’s not going to seal its mines anytime soon. Rather, the Department of Energy is planning for the future. Until at least 2024, trucks from far away lands like Idaho will haul waste across southerly U.S. highways, eventually rumbling into WIPP’s driveway. By 2023, the plant aims to receive over 600 nuclear waste shipments each year.
Yet, the Department of Energy anticipates operating the mine well beyond the next decade, until 2050. With over $200 million in taxpayer dollars, they’re now modernizing the ventilation, fire suppression, network cable, public address (vital, in the event something must be announced loudly and promptly), and electrical systems. WIPP’s being reborn.
One day, WIPP might be joined by another nuclear waste site — but this one exposed on New Mexico’s desert surface.
Between the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, about 70 miles apart, lies 1,000 acres of rough desert scrub. Holtec International, a company that sells sturdy containers for storing nuclear waste, has a scheme for these 1,000 acres that would make them a lot of money. The company wants to transform this forsaken desert into a concrete field holding 10,000 containers of spent fuel from all the nation’s nuclear power plants, collectively called the HI-STORE Consolidated Interim Story Facility. “Interim” is a somewhat deceiving word here. Taxpayers would essentially rent these thick casks until our underperforming Congress finds a truly permanent place to store the spent fuel from nuclear plants. The waste could stay there for 40 years. Or, if the casks are continually restored, much longer.
Dale Janway, Carlsbad’s mayor, supports Holtec’s grand nuclear plans, and believes his constituents do, too.
“Our background as a nuclear community certainly contributes to this high level of support,” Janway wrote over email. “We feel a source of pride in knowing that we are presenting a solution to a national problem,” he said, and added that such a facility would mean hundreds of steady jobs in a notoriously volatile, boom-and-bust oil economy.
The waste-filled containers, sitting beyond the outskirts of Carlsbad, will be safe, Janway assured. “The containers have been tested in every way imaginable and will withstand everything you can throw at them,” he said.
Top: A truck hauling a cask to WIPP | Bottom: A conceptual design of the Holtec nuclear site.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission | Nuclear Regulatory Commission / Holtec International
Indeed, Holtec, who would not respond to multiple inquiries, knows how to build robust containers. But that doesn’t mean most New Mexicans want them.
Hancock, of the Southwest Research and Information Center, said that most folks who spoke at a recent Nuclear Regulatory Commission meeting in Carlsbad opposed Holtec’s nuclear designs. Janway, however, claimed the “local commentary about the project was overwhelmingly in favor of the project.”
For now, Holtec’s waste depository is not close to becoming a reality. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the initial stages of “scoping” the project. And even if the agency approved it, Holtec would have to contend with a regulatory fortress vigilantly guarded by the Environmental Protection Agency, the state of New Mexico, and not least the ruthless watch of Hancock, who’s well known in nuclear policy circles. “We’re not going to let [Holtec] happen,” he scoffed. “That’s just absurd.”
“New Mexicans should not have to tolerate this risk.”
Hancock and New Mexicans not keen on another nuclear waste site currently have a powerful ally. New Mexico’s governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, despises Hotlec’s scheme. In a letter sent to former Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in June, Grisham listed a slew of faults with the plan, like the dangers of repeatedly transporting the waste though the windswept state. Not least, Holtec’s radioactive casks would inevitably degrade, necessitating that the radioactive contents inside be “repackaged.” This raises the possibility of radiation release. As the decades pass, there could be thousands of decaying containers to restore. It only takes one accident.
“New Mexicans should not have to tolerate this risk,” she said.
The U.S. has nuked the hell out of Nevada.
Just an hour north of Las Vegas, Uncle Sam detonated over 1,000 nuclear bombs between 1951 and 1992. Though — once the federal government accepted that airborne radioactive particles were harming unassuming Americans — the bombs were instead exploded underground, leaving the Nevada Nuclear Test Site pockmarked with massive, irradiated craters.
Inside this forlorn federal land lies perhaps the most intensively scrutinized rock in the world: Yucca Mountain. The 22-mile-long ridge was once the leading candidate (Burns argues it still might be) to permanently entomb the United States’ growing collection of nuclear waste. But the Obama administration shut down the locally-contested project before the first tank of dangerous nuclear fuel could ever enter the facility’s dark, labyrinthine tunnel.
Without Yucca Mountain, nuclear waste around the country, beyond the materials trucked to WIPP, is in nuclear purgatory. As a nuclear waste site, Yucca Mountain might be dead forever.
“We don’t want it,” said U.S. Rep. Susie Lee of Nevada. “Nevadans are unified, at least in my district, for opposing Yucca Mountain.”
“The state doesn’t want it,” emphasized George Washington University’s Macfarlane. “They’ve been consistent since 1987 that they don’t want it. That’s a pretty good record.”
Top: Nuclear device blast at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site | Bottom: Tunnel in Yucca Mountain
Nevada National Security Site | John Locher / AP / Shutterstock
Nevadans, like Lee, are wary of transporting nuclear waste through the state. What’s worse, some waste would likely pass near or through Las Vegas, which sits in a county of 2.2 million people, she said. Just this June, a train hauling military weapons derailed outside of Elko, Nevada. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when there will be an accident,” said Lee.
And then there’s the mountain itself. Though the government has spent billions of dollars researching the Yucca mountain and constructing parts of the repository, Lee stressed that these efforts don’t make it the best nor safest option. “I’m not confident that anyone fully understands the risks of storing this radioactive material,” she said. The mountain, composed of ancient volcanic ash called tuff, is inherently porous and fractured, meaning potential leaks, Lee noted.
Scientists continue to actively research how to keep potent nuclear fuel sealed in deep underground places. “It’s still a fundamental scientific problem,” explained Cheng Chen, an assistant professor of mining and minerals engineering at Virginia Tech. With funding from the Department of Energy, Chen is now studying how waste-filled containers could be lowered into the underworld, and then embalmed in a thick clay, providing a supreme barrier between the radiation and surface world.
To see if the radiation can truly be sequestered for good, Chen does a lot of advanced computer simulations to replicate reality and the passage of time. It’s the only option available. “You don’t have a lab to do experiments for 10,000 years,” he said.
If ultimately not Nevada, then where? West Texas? New Mexico?
Critically, both New Mexico and Nevada don’t use nuclear power. They would essentially be cleaning up nuclear leftovers from the 29 states that generate power from nuclear fuel.
“Why do they think people in [Nevada and New Mexico] are so stupid as to take it from them?” pondered Hancock. “If it’s safe, why can’t it stay where it is?”
The waste must eventually go deep, deep underground, said Lyman, the nuclear expert. The irradiated can can’t be punted down the road all century. Nuclear plants are brimming with this stuff. “The Department of Energy is on the hook to produce some type of a solution as the reactor facilities are filling up,” emphasized Notre Dame’s Burns.
There’s only one way that can happen: not forcing, not dictating, but collaborating with a community, somewhere, to allow a geologic depository, stressed Macfarlane. The site would need to be heavily guarded in perpetuity. “The question is can they be compensated enough and their concerns be mitigated enough that they’re willing to accept it,” said Lyman.
The political will to find a dark, abysmal home for our waste, however, is relatively anemic. Not least because the issue is a ceaseless, stubborn headache for lawmakers. “You’re going to come up with roadblocks on every turn,” said Lyman. “No politician wants to take it up if they don’t have to.”
But Rep. Lee, at least, doesn’t find Congress’ nuclear apathy acceptable. “Where we sit as a country right now is not safe,” she said. “We do need to come up with a solution.”
When will they? “What would cause [Congress] to see it as something they needed to fix?” wondered Burns. “I’m at a loss on that,” he said, noting that while the waste can’t just sit exposed on the surface forever, it could be some 50 years before the casks become an imminent threat.
Indeed, nuclear waste is “out of sight out of mind,” noted Lyman. This is in stark contrast to an environmental threat like relentlessly rising global temperatures, wherein the well-predicted consequences of a warmer globe are conspicuously unfolding today: wildfires torching more land, the melting of the great ice sheets, unprecedented deluges, overheated infrastructure, an incessantly warming ocean, and beyond.
A WIPP tunnel.
Eric Draper / AP / Shutterstock
For now, unsuspecting vacationers en route to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park and other desert treasures will pass big rigs hauling plutonium-soaked waste, entombed in large vats, headed to WIPP’s deep salt mines in southeastern New Mexico. It’s a nuclear legacy New Mexico hasn’t escaped. Why, just on the other side of the state’s lofty Sacramento Mountains, the U.S. exploded the first nuclear device in 1945, revealing to soldiers, generals, and nuclear physicists humanity’s first glimpse of a frightful mushroom cloud.
If New Mexico’s nuclear heritage is somehow ever lost, perhaps by the passage of millennia and ravages of time, tall monuments will stand in the windswept desert for thousands of years, hopefully warding off any curious pilgrims, explorers, or future industrialists from the decaying consequences of war, weaponry, and defense. Whatever symbols the Department of Energy ultimately etches into the walls of the roofless, sunlit temple where WIPP once stood, they better be damn scary.
Nandita Raghuram and Brittany Levine Beckman
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