Radiation Hot Spot: New Mexico’s Nuclear Graveyard

May 28, 2018

V.B. Price

 

Seemingly right out of the blue, New Mexicans are facing the chilling possibility that despite their protestations, as much as half of the nation’s highly dangerous spent nuclear fuel rods might be “temporarily” stored (for many decades) at a site somewhere between Carlsbad and Hobbs, operated by the New Jersey firm Holtec International. And in a completely separate situation, we’re also finding ourselves being virtually forced to acquiesce to storing much, but not all, of the nation’s surplus weapons-grade plutonium in so-called “diluted” form at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) near Carlsbad with all its tons of low-level transuranic waste.

These new dump sites will be added to what the Albuquerque Journal happily called in a recent editorial a “triangle of nuclear experience.” It refers to an area in southeastern New Mexico and northwest Texas that houses WIPP, the Urenco uranium enrichment plant making fuel-grade radioactive material near Eunice and right across the state line in Andrews County, Texas the soon-to-be-built spent-fuel storage site owned by the giant French nuclear corporation AREVA and run by the Dallas firm, Waste Control Specialists LLC.

It looks to me more like a bull’s eye for terrorists. Now we’ll be able to say that not only is New Mexico chronically one of the poorest states in the nation but also that its southeastern nuclear hot spot makes it one of the country’s least appealing and potentially most dangerous places.

Quite suddenly, we’re looking at a brave new world that could see all roads and rails carrying nuclear waste leading right to us, coming from as many as 30 states and dozens of nuclear weapons operations around the country. For those many friends of New Mexico who want no nuclear waste stored here at all, it’s an almost overwhelming confluence of horrible nightmares.

And along with all this we’re witnessing up close the verbal trickery and sins of omission that allow such a wretched mess to float by largely unnoticed by the general public, tricks used here and across the country and the world.

The Journal editorial of April 18th , for instance, championed the notion of Holtec International setting up what looks like an orderly, even snazzy, operation that the people of Lea and Eddy counties are eager to add to their economic development portfolio. Nothing was mentioned in the editorial about the transportation of such fuels, or about the obvious and safest course of action: leaving the spent-fuel rods “temporarily” in hardened containers at the 70 or so nuclear power plants that used them. The Journal editorial board also worked a classic piece of verbal deception about WIPP and its nuclear accident in 2014 that closed the facility for the better part of three years. It described WIPP as “the recently-reopened…storage facility (closed because of problems that occurred at Los Alamos National Laboratory)” and just left it at that. The editorial board made no mention that one of the canisters full of plutonium-contaminated waste exploded, polluting 8,000 linear feet of underground tunnels and venting out nuclear fumes into the environment that contaminated 21 workers, whose health issues are still handled as if they were a national security issue. It didn’t mention that there was a completely random, off-the-cuff change in how the canister was packed at Los Alamos, the high-tech capital of the world, and what new absorbent materials were used, a change made casually with no analysis undertaken of the consequences.

And then there’s the ever-tricky language of the nuclear world and its interpreters in media and PR firms. Let’s just take two wiggle words — “diluted” and “transuranic.”

Of the some 34 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, the government wants to store about 6 metric tons at WIPP, in a clear break with promises made for decades to never store high-level waste there. This treachery is supposed to be OK because the weapons-grade plutonium will be “diluted” at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Savannah River Site before it’s sent to WIPP. But what does that actually mean? According to a 2016 piece in Nature, diluting the super-hot plutonium is classified information but would probably include “cementing, gelling, thickening and foam agents known as stardust.” Apparently, how long the stardust can withstand plutonium without decomposing is a national security issue. The authors of the piece, entitled “Reassess New Mexico’s nuclear-waste repository,” say that the “dilute and dispose” proposal to convert weapons-plutonium pits” into an “inert” state, whatever that might mean, “nearly triples the current projected plutonium” deposited at WIPP by the time it closes in 15 years or so. “WIPP’s capacity would have to expand by 15%, increasing the likelihood that a borehole (from fracking in the area) will one day intersect it.”

Right now, WIPP contains thousands of canisters of low-level plutonium waste, concentrated on equipment and gear used to process the material. Plutonium is so dangerous that even lab coats that have been in the same room with the stuff have to be buried a half mile underground at WIPP. Many pro-nuke spin doctors like to use the word “transuranic” as a high falootin’ synonym for low-level. But transuranic means something entirely different — it simply refers to elements having atomic numbers greater than uranium at 92, including neptunium 93, plutonium 94, americium 95 and more than a dozen more. One of the most dangerous radioactive materials, polonium, has a lower atomic number than uranium at 84. Transuranic is a complicated word that is also associated with half-lives of radioactive isotopes. It is not a synonym for “low-level.”

Perhaps the thorniest issue, for both the Holtech commercial fuel rod project and expanding WIPP to store very high-level plutonium waste is transportation. In both cases, the materials, because of their enormous weight, would have to be transported across the country by rail. In both cases the exact routes would not be clear because of security issues. Despite all that you might read about the containers for high-level commercial and military waste, very little in this world is 100 percent sure, except of course for human error. Somewhere, sometime, our hubris over transporting super-hot radioactive waste will get the better of us, innocent people will die and land will be contaminated. Anyone who travels in rural America knows that trains move through literally countless small towns every hour of every day. Just on the face of it, moving commercial nuclear waste and weapons-grade plutonium is a terribly risky business. And we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be deluded that it isn’t.

And, of course, the Holtec project and the expanded WIPP would not come close to disposing of all the hot waste around the country. The uranium enrichment plant in Eunice, for instance, is making fuel-grade uranium to be used in new fuel rods. The process seems unstoppable. According to Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a new DOE deal was firmed up just this month for both Los Alamos and Savannah River installations to divvy up the manufacture of new plutonium pits for bombs, 50 a year in Georgia and 30 a year in New Mexico. As Nuke Watch points out, this will add to the ridiculous number of already existing “surplus” plutonium pits stored at the Pantex Plant northeast of Amarillo, Texas — all 15,000 of them, along with an additional 5,000 pits held in “strategic reserve.” That would be 20,000 excess plutonium bomb pits, enough to split the plant in half if used all at once.

And where will all those pits go, diluted or not, when there’s just too many for even the DOE’s crazy hoarders? Ah, let’s send them to ol’ New Mexico. We can back out of any deal we made with them. And so it goes. We’ll be the nation’s radioactive toilet and the laughing stock of all sensible people everywhere.

*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it

 

To comment on this piece, go to MercMessenger.com.

About Mercury Messenger

In response to the election of November 8, 2016, I’ve decided to start up The Mercury Messenger. It is the next rendition of a column I’ve been writing in New Mexico about politics, culture, human rights and the environment since 1971. The column started in The New Mexico Independent and versions of it have run in Century Magazine, the Albuquerque Journal, the Albuquerque Tribune, New Mexico Magazine, The New Mexico Independent online, and the New Mexico Mercury online. While the New Mexico Mercury is still seeking adequate funding to reinvent itself, the Mercury Messenger will be a forum for my column offered as a direct newsletter, and at MercMessenger.com.

V.B. Price has lived in New Mexico since 1958, mostly in Albuquerque’s North Valley, writing poetry, journalism and non-fiction. His website is vbprice.com.

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