WIPP - What is It?
WIPP: The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, November 1997
In 1979, Congress authorized the Department of Energy (DOE) to construct WIPP east of Carlsbad, New Mexico. WIPP is to be a project to demonstrate the safe underground disposal of transuranic nuclear weapons waste presently stored at DOE facilities around the country. DOE also maintains the option to dispose of its non-weapons transuranic wastes at WIPP.
Transuranic waste is waste contaminated by elements heavier than uranium (such as plutonium) and which has a level of radioactivity greater than 100 nanocuries per gram.
The form of plutonium used in weapons production has a half-life of 24,000 years, meaning that half of the plutonium will have decayed into other elements after 24,000 years. Transuranics are man-made alpha-emitters. Alpha particles are helium nuclei (2 protons) emitted by plutonium radioactive decay. They can be easily stopped by a piece of paper or your skin, but are extremely damaging if inhaled or absorbed by an open wound. Over half of the future WIPP waste is mixed waste - that is radioactive waste mixed with non-radioactive hazardous materials like lead, carbon tetrachloride, etc.
WIPP is often promoted as the solution to our transuranic waste (TRU waste) problem. In reality, it is planned to hold only a small percentage of DOE's total existing TRU waste which is contaminating soil and water at various facilities around the country. In fact, much of the waste planned for WIPP has not even been created yet. Instead of being the answer to our waste problem, WIPP is the political solution that enables more waste production resulting from continuing nuclear weapons research and manufacturing.
The Site - Theory
The WIPP site was chosen for political reasons. In 1956 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended salt formations as the most promising type of site for permanent underground disposal of radioactive waste because salt tens to creep. It was assumed that the salt would collapse around the waste, creating a naturally sealed tomb that would prevent the waste from moving. Also, it was assumed that any underground salt formation would be dry.
The Site - Reality
Almost immediately, scientists discovered the WIPP did not fulfill the ideal. During excavation, fractures appeared, creating new pathways for the release of waste to the environment. Also, the salt was not dry, but contained water which was seeping into the underground rooms. Additional water was coming down the shafts and a pressurized brine reservoir was discovered below the site.
All this water creates potential pathways for radioactive releases. In the future, if the water mixes with the waste and the decaying metal barrels in which the waste is packed, a radioactive slurry will be created which can migrate through the cracks and fissures in the salt. Because there are large amounts of potash, natural gas and oil near the site the repository may be breached by future drilling. Radioactive materials could travel to the surface through the boreholes. If the brine reservoir below the repository is also breached, the pressurized brine can push the radioactive slurry to the surface with even greater force.
There are many other problems with both the waste and the site. The decay of the water and the barrels in which it is packed creates flammable gases. The waste is also wrapped in plastic bags which can create a static electrical spark. During operations, this combination of flammable gases and electrostatic plastic bags could create a spontaneous fire or explosion at the facility or when the waste is moved. Also, the amount of gas generated may be enough to keep the rooms from closing around the waste as planned. And, because the hydrology around the site is not fully understood, there are serious questions about how long it would take contamination from the project to reach the Pecos River.
Current estimates range anywhere from less than 100 years to 14,000 years or more. Finally, DOE has not solved the problem of sealing the shafts leading into the repository. There is currently no proven technology to seal shafts in salt formations.
DOE predicts the most serious and widespread public exposure to radioactive materials from WIPP will result from transportation. Over 38,000 shipments through New Mexico are expected during the facility's operational lifetime.
The shipping container for the waste (the TRUPACT II) has only been tested to out-of-date standards and has not been demonstrated to withstand a crushing accident. Many of the chemicals that are routinely transported on the roads today burn at temperatures twice as high as the testing temperatures used to approve the container.
In the case of an accident in New Mexico, it would take 1-5 hours before special DOE Radiological Assistance Teams could reach the wreck. Also since the waste contains more than just alpha radiation, radiation will pass through the walls of the TRUPACTS during normal operations, potentially exposing to radiation anyone living on the WIPP routes or driving near one of the trucks.
The perception of radioactive contamination can affect tourism and create a negative market for any agricultural products that are perceived to be contaminated. There are already at least 2-3 trucks per day carrying radioactive materials through New Mexico to and from Los Alamos National Laboratory. If WIPP (and the proposed Yucca Mountain high-level waste repository in Nevada) are allowed to open, the transportation of radioactive materials through our state will rise dramatically.
Today it is virtually impossible to obtain homeowners insurance against radioactive contamination. If your home, business or ranch were to be contaminated, either through normal WIPP operations or through an accident, the government would decide if cleanup of the contamination were economically feasible. You would have to prove government liability at your own expense and might never be compensated for contaminated products, crops, the cost of cleanup or your property.
Already, real estate values along the WIPP route have been shown to decline even before any waste has been transported to WIPP. Again, even the perception of possible contamination is enough to potentially affect business. Investor interest in our state may drop and bond ratings may fall as the risk of contamination in New Mexico becomes well known.
Who Wants WIPP? Read our expose on the forces pushing WIPP ahead.
Find other New Mexico Businesses Against Radioactive Transport.