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Big Picture: WIPP Leak


Just 26 miles east of Carlsbad, N.M., in the Chihuahuan Desert, the United States buries its radioactive waste. Mostly, that’s the clothes, tools and rags that come into contact with elements heavier than uranium on the Periodic Table. But about 4 percent of what’s dumped at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is more toxic and has to be stored in lead casks.

The site is 2,150 feet underground in a chunk of salt, and it’s the only deep geologic pit in the nation that can store the garbage from the development of nuclear weapons. It’s certified by the Environmental Protection Agency to contain the radioactive debris for 10,000 years.

And it’s been in the national spotlight because it sprung a leak on Valentine’s Day.  Thirteen workers inhaled radioactive particles, but  the extent of their exposure and possible health effects are unclear. The Carlsbad chapter of the United Steelworkers raised concerns that only a handful of workers were given a full-body scan after the leak.

Half a mile away, plutonium and americium are in the air. WIPP officials promise those levels are low, similar to what patients are exposed to during an X-ray. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich have called for independent tests around the WIPP site.

WIPP is still in the process of testing the soil, water and vegetation at the site, and the plant is shut down. Containers from around the country wait in a parking area and inside a building, where they can remain for up to 105 days under a deadline that’s been extended by New Mexico.

Ryan Flynn of the state’s Environment Department called the leak unacceptable at a news conference and said, “One event is far too many.”

Residents want to know what caused the leak. WIPP said it has been plugged, and it will not affect tourist attraction Carlsbad Caverns.

Activists and scientists alike have been suggesting for years that the WIPP site isn’t as impenetrable as it was said to be when it opened in 1999. Geologist Richard Hayes Phillips posited in 2009 that cavernous groundwater aquifers above WIPP and brine reservoirs below could mean widespread contamination if a breach ever occurs.

WIPP undergoes re-certification every five years. The next one will happen in 2015.

Republican Rep. Steve Pearce introduced a measure in Congress that would allow WIPP to accept more waste. His goal, he said, was to protect the 650 jobs WIPP provides in Carlsbad. Earlier last year, the state’s Environment Department began considering a request from the feds to bring 3.1 million gallons of nuclear waste from leaking tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington.

Waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Area G leftover from the Manhattan Project was also being sent to WIPP. Those shipments were halted after a salt-hauling truck caught fire nine days before the leak in February. Officials say the truck fire and the leak are not related.

The Brookings Institute estimates the U.S. has spent more than $5,821 billion building, deploying and cleaning up after nuclear weapons from 1940 to 1996. During that time, the U.S. built more than 70,000 nuclear warheads and bombs. The Department of Energy continues to spend about $5 billion a year on a program to clean up the resulting waste. 

Tune into KUNM's Call-In Show on Thursday at 8 a.m. for a discussion of the radiation leak at WIPP.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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