by Bonnie Urfer
It will leak. And when it does, it will contaminate the environment with deadly radioactivity for 200,000 years. Nevertheless, US District Judge John Garrett Penn declared that the Department of Energy (DOE) is free to ship military radioactive waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Toward the end of March, some of the cancer-causing garbage - left over from nuclear bomb production and space programs - began arriving.
Clothing, tools, equipment, soil and sludges contaminated with plutonium and other hightly radioactive carcinogens are on their way down into caverns 2,000 feet beneath the surface, where they will eventually be buried in collapsing, 250-million-year-old bedded salt formations. Besides its corrosive power, salt may be a dangerously unstable bed for nuclear waste.
According to Judge Penn, "The court injunction enetered in 1992 does not prevent the shipment of... waste to WIPP." Penn concluded that this waste "is not hazardous under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, so... DOE may make the shipment."
Betty Ball, an organizer with the Rocky Mountain Institute, observed that "hauling 28,000 truckloads of waste through Colorado to WIPP from all of the sources in the US with WIPP-designated waste, will jeopardize people and land for 200,000 years." Over 50% of the storage space at WIPP is designated for nuclear weapons waste yet to be produced. WIPP is intended to accept military radioactive waste for about 30 years.
The first waste shipment left Los Alamos National Laboratory in new Mexico and arrived on March 26. A second truck load of plutonium waste from the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (INEL) near Pocatello made a trip April 27 that took 36 hours. The INEL load consisted of 42 55-gallon drums.
The DOE has said in formal Environmental Impact Statements that its plan may cause at least 78 transportation accidents, with seven releases of radiation at various locations around the country. It projects five accidents and one radiation release in New Mexico alone. The DOE says there is "a fairly high possibility of accidents leading to latent cancer fatalities."
One non-release accident already happened. In January 1997, a truck designed to transport rad waste to the WIPP received minor damage when it struck a cow 40 miles north of Carlsbad. It was heading toward WIPP on Highway 285 from Albuquerque and was being used for training.
The DOE's "Trupact-II" containers weigh 19,250 lbs. loaded, and are built of ceramic fiber and polyurethane foam insulation and stainless steel. The containers stand 10 feet high and are eight feet in diameter. It takes four hours to unpack each Trupact-II container and an hour to take each shipment down into WIPP for storage. Each truck holds three Trupact-II cans.
Conventional truckers will have computer linkage to the "TransCom" satellite system, cellular telephones, direct two-way radio satellite phones, and continuous tracking by a central monitoring room at the WIPP site.
Trucks will primarily travel the interstate system unless alternative routes are designated by individual states. New Mexico forced the DOE to build a new bypass around Santa Fe.
INEL intends to send about 9,000 shipments to the WIPP by 2018. The Savannah River Site in South Carolina is preparing 2,250 shipments; Los Alamos, New Mexico - 5,400; Rocky Flats, Colorado - 2,500; Oak Ridge, Tennessee - 1,500; and Hanford, Washington - 17,000. Other sources include Argonne in Illinois, Mound in Ohio, the Nevada Test Site, and Lawrence Livermore in California. The waste is divided into "contact handled" and "remote handled." Remote handled is simply too hot and deadly to approach, requiring heavier packaging and robotic handling.
The DOE says it has radioactive waste from 20 US nuclear weapons sites slated for transport to New Mexico. Its plans mean that plutonium waste shipments may crisscross 30 states and 11 Native American nations.
Once the drums are underground, surrounded by salt, corroding and leaking, there will be no possibility of retrieval and no chance for clean-up. Neither the government nor the nuclear industry can contain this sort of radioactivity for 40 years. The first answer to the radioactive waste problem is to stop making it.