Military Plutonium-Contaminated Wastes On the Highways to WIPP

By Yvonne Mills & Bonnie Urfer

An email came in on Monday night, June 28, saying a truck carrying plutonium ash from Rocky Flats "clean-up" would leave the site on Thursday morning headed for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. If we wanted to follow it, we needed to leave Tuesday morning.

Nukewatch was on the scene when a hot load of plutonium-contaminated waste left the
Rocky Flats weapons complex (above), 16 miles from Denver, headed for the WIPP
site in New Mexico.  WIPP is the first non-retrievable underground nuclear waste dump
ever opened by the federal government.  The 10-foot tall "Trupact-II" canisters,
weighing up to 19,250 pounds, are said by the Energy Department to have passed
three sorts of highway accident tests.

Tracking the trucks and trains carrying radioactive wastes offers a look at the routes, rest stops and routines of the carriers, and provides opportunities for public education and media coverage. Many organizations along the WIPP truck routes are working to increase awareness in the effort to end radioactive waste production.

The Department of Energy is planning to ship over 40,000 loads of plutonium-laden radioactive waste to the WIPP site over the next 40 years. The waste was - and continues to be - generated at nuclear bomb production sites in Illinois, Tennessee, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, South Carolina, New Mexico, California, Nevada and Ohio.

After traveling for two days, we made it to Boulder, CO, home of the Rocky Mountain Peace Center, and joined area activists to prepare for Thursday's rally at the gates of Rocky Flats just south of town. Folks at the Peace Center produced banners, pulled out song sheets, discussed the site for the legal rally and related information about the first shipment of WIPP waste sent the month before.

The first truckload was not without incident. Upon reaching the WIPP site, employees discovered that one of the Trupact-II containers had exterior radioactive contamination as well as a missing vent cover. Officials said of the lost cover that since it wasn't really necessary, it wasn't really missing. No one knows how the outside of the Trupact-II became contaminated although the DOE claims it was naturally occurring radiation picked up en route.

The following morning about 35 people gathered at Rocky Flats to await the passing of the truck carrying three radioactive waste canisters. Signs and banners helped to alert people in passing vehicles.

The truck left the site on schedule, after a four-hour inspection, just a few minutes after 10:00 a.m on June 30. Others who attempted to follow the previous shipment were stopped by police. To avoid being detained when the truck pulled out, we looped around Denver another way.

By the time we reached the center of Denver the stop-and-go traffic was so thick that it took an hour to reach the southern boundary. The radioactive waste shipment was behind us in the same southbound I-25 noon rush-hour jam. Ironically the truck was not allowed to travel through Denver during the morning or afternoon rush-hours.

At the first rest area south of Denver we pulled off, made phone calls and waited for the WIPP cargo to pass. When it did, we followed it through the highly populated tourist area of Colorado Springs. We weren't at all sure the police wouldn't stop us if we stayed with the truck so we took some photos, passed and went on ahead.

According to DOE regulations, the WIPP trucks and containers must be inspected every 100 miles or 2 hours. Since the truck had a four hour inspection at Rocky Flats, it was "exempt" from the first check.

Down the road, we scratched our heads and made calculations. According to the regulations governing time and mileage, the truck was due for a check-up. We chose an exit and decided to wait for it. Our calculations were right! The truck pulled off at the same exit, number 67, but chose to hide behind the Total gas station just across the overpass. At this point we spied the expected courier vans - white, unmarked, with darkened windows. Two of the vans left the Total station and headed back toward Denver while one traveled with the shipment all the way to New Mexico.

The inspection took all of 15 minutes behind the gas station where no one could see the canisters. We had a perfect photo opportunity when the load reentered the interstate and passed directly in front of us.

Once again, we pulled out behind the truck. When we crossed the New Mexico border we waited at another likely inspection site without considering the Port of Entry (where all trucks must stop) in our calculations. After an hour of watching traffic on the interstate with no hot cargo in sight, we decided to go ahead to Santa Fe.

We met the group of people with Concerned Citizen's for Nuclear Safety in Santa Fe, waiting on the roadside with signs, banners and leaflets. We waited at the roadside for hours but by 10:30 p.m., 3½ hours beyond the anticipated arrival time, the shipment had not arrived. Phone calls to police and State officials revealed that the truck had been stopped at the New Mexico border.

A leak in an air-hose and a missing "radioactive" placard led state police to detain the shipment. The driver was ticketed for the missing warning label, and had to wait for a replacement and fix the hose. The truck didn't arrive at the WIPP site until the following morning.

It seemed impossible to comprehend the magnitude of the danger as we traveled close to a truck carrying one of the most deadly substances on Earth. The canisters were an eerie and oppressive presence, yet the common mode of transportation promoted a false sense of safety and security.

From Rocky Flats, through the heart of Denver and down Interstate-25, everyone should know exactly what's on these trucks - affecting them and the next 12,000 generations.

Bonnie Urfer is on the Nukewatch staff and Yvonne Mills is a Nukewatch volunteer.