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Nuclear disposal site opens, activists embrace Web

NCR Staff

As trucks roll into Carlsbad, N.M., carrying nuclear waste to a just-opened federal burial site, activists vowed to continue the struggle to close the location, which they denounce as unsafe and say will allow continued production of nuclear weapons.

The first shipment of transuranic waste -- plutonium-contaminated trash such as gloves and lab clothing from nuclear weapons production -- arrived March 26 at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, known as WIPP.

Critics have protested the disposal site since it was first approved by Congress 20 years ago. They say that the site will not safely contain the radioactive waste for the 24,000 years it takes for the plutonium contamination to decay to safe levels.

“Nobody and no thing can hold that much death for time scales like a century or thousands of years,” said retired physicist Charles Hyder, who recently ended a fast to protest the project. “We’re staring at a thing that is truly a menace to life on earth.”

The WIPP site, which was constructed 26 miles east of Carlsbad in the 1980s, is built in an underground salt bed that the Department of Energy says will slowly close in on the waste, isolating it from the atmosphere and ground water. The waste intended for the site is currently stored above ground and in shallow burial locations at nuclear defense sites throughout the nation.

Critics have cited fracture zones and water tables near the underground salt bed that could cause leakage into the environment, including possible contamination of the Pecos River. The surrounding area also contains a significant number of operations such as oil wells and potash mines, that present a risk of human penetration of the storage site, according to critics.

According to Janet Greenwald, co-coordinator of the Albuquerque-based Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping, if leakages occur, most likely affected will be poorer and mostly Spanish-speaking communities in Texas and Mexico, communities that are dependent on the Pecos River for their water supply.

After years of legal challenges, the waste disposal project received approval from the Environmental Protection Agency in May 1998. A major legal hurdle was overcome in May when the state of New Mexico dropped its lawsuit challenging EPA certification of the underground dump.

New Mexico activist groups, including Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping, Citizens Concerned for Nuclear Safety and the Southwest Research and Information Center, had joined the challenge to certification and continued after the state dropped out of the lawsuit. On June 29, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington denied their petition to review EPA certification.

Joni Arends, waste program director for Citizens Concerned for Nuclear Safety, said the Santa Fe-based group is closely monitoring the transportation of nuclear waste through New Mexico. Several problems already cropped up in the 14 shipments to the disposal site by the end of June. Shipments from Idaho have been halted following a Department of Energy audit that found deficiencies in waste handling and record-keeping.

In late June, radioactive contamination was detected on a container hauling waste from a closed weapons plant in Rocky Flats, Colo. Energy officials said the contamination was from naturally occurring material.

In another shipment from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, workers in Carlsbad discovered a plug missing from a vent port on one of the stainless steel containers that are used to hold drums and boxes of transuranic waste. The Department of Energy characterized both incidents as minor and said neither posed a safety risk.

In a statement released after the missing plug was discovered June 26, WIPP manager Ines Triay said, “While the incident did not pose a safety risk, our goal is to achieve and maintain a perfect record of operations.”

However, Arends said that the problems raise serious questions when “they haven’t even made 15 shipments yet” -- out of 38,000 shipments planned for the next 35 years.

Franciscan Fr. Vincent Petersen, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church in Artesia, N.M., said many in New Mexico are either apathetic or wholeheartedly in favor of the disposal project “The closer you get to the WIPP site, the less resistance there is.” he said. “The people accepting this are the ones in a sense being victimized by it. It’s very dysfunctional. We’re being paid for this in money, jobs, the usual. We’re being bought off.”

Some opponents of WIPP gave up when the trucks began to move the waste into New Mexico, according to Pami Singh, an anti-WIPP activist in Albuquerque. “But the story has just begun,” he said. “This is a story for the next 24,000 years.”

Singh’s friend Hyder fasted for nearly three months in an attempt to shut down the project. Hyder, 69, who once taught at the University of New Mexico and worked for NASA, fasted from March 24 to June 14. Singh convinced him to end the fast after he was hospitalized June 13. The fast was simply not going to achieve the goal of closing WIPP, Singh said. He said he told Hyder, “Given the atmosphere, you’ll just get branded as a kooky scientist.”

For Singh, the Internet may be the direction activism needs to go. Singh had been managing a Web site to get the word out about Hyder’s fast to end WIPP (www.wippfast.com). He now wants to use the site to both educate and motivate the public.

Hyder said he hopes the Internet will give him the chance to communicate the dangers of WIPP without the censorship he said he encountered in the local press. The Internet offers “a great expansion of access to the world,” he said.

Meanwhile, Greenwald said that Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping has been developing Spanish-speaking materials about WIPP and environmental justice. The group is building a binational coalition with communities along the border with Mexico.

The coalition, called by its Spanish name Coalición Binacional Contra Tiraderos Tóxicos y Radiactivos, also hopes to gain more support from the Catholic church in the area. “There’s been very little involvement from the religious community,” Greenwald said.

Petersen said the Catholic church in New Mexico has been “afraid to tackle it because it’s so big, and they want to do winnable issues.” But he sees the transport of nuclear waste as “a teaching moment about the foolishness of nuclear weapons.”

Petersen and a small group of about 12 members of Our Lady of Grace Church, calling themselves the Witness Interfaith Network, have kept a vigil each night the shipments have passed by Artesia headed for the WIPP site.

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999