• Last month, radioactive waste bubbled up from below the earth in a nuclear dump in New Mexico. No one has figured out the root cause or what can be done about it.
By Victor Thorn —
On Valentine’s Day, 26 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, plutonium and americium leaked from a nuclear dump operated by the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). These materials, spewing up from 2,000 feet below the surface of a salt bed, made their way above ground to trigger a radiation alert. Along with 13 employees being exposed to airborne contaminants, significant amounts of these toxins were detected a half mile away.
Opened only 15 years ago in 1999, WIPP runs America’s first deep underground nuclear facility. This plant’s safety was first compromised on February 14, yet officials haven’t mined underground to determine if the source of this leak is contained.
As a way of getting straight answers, on March 6 this newspaper contacted Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center.
When questioned about this potentially disastrous situation, Hancock stated: “A month after the fact, we still don’t know what happened because no humans or robots have been underground. Radiation leaks could still be occurring. On top of that, the amount of radioactivity released into the atmosphere may be unknowable forever.”
As to the injured workers, Hancock explained: “You can’t see, feel or touch plutonium, and you don’t know when it’s been involuntarily breathed. What we are certain of is that plutonium and americium are very dangerous and typically cause fatal lung cancer when inhaled. Yet, if you believe the Department of Energy, these employees face no health risks whatsoever.”
Hancock described the magnitude of this problem. “There are 170,000 total containers buried at this site, with many holding contaminated plutonium waste from making nuclear bombs,” he said. “Moreover, during the past three years, outside waste has been brought to WIPP after the dumps at Yucca Mountain [Nuclear Waste Repository] were closed. The release of radioactive material wasn’t supposed to happen for 15,000 years, yet WIPP had its first catastrophe in 15 years.”
It seems other areas of the state aren’t immune, either. On March 6 this reporter contacted Dave McCoy, executive director of Citizen Action New Mexico.
“At Sandia Labs on Kirtland Air Force Base, which is overseen by Lockheed Martin, there are 60,000 pounds of depleted uranium lying in unlined shallow pits and trenches that sit above aquifers,” said McCoy. “They’ve also dumped billions of gallons of contaminated water, arsenic and mercury into the ground.”
McCoy added: “There are 26 sites at Sandia and Kirtland, with four dumps between 50-60 acres in size, and no one even knows what’s there. It’s not monitored or studied. Besides, I haven’t even told you about the 24 million-gallon jet fuel spill that was the largest of its kind in history.”
But that’s not all, added McCoy.
“Los Alamos [National Laboratory] possesses 63 acres, or 21 million cubic feet, of radioactive waste and toxic chemicals,” he said. “The city of Albuquerque has 92 municipal wells, and over 50% of them have arsenic levels above what is acceptable.”
Turning his attention to WIPP, McCoy noted: “We have a $6 billion facility, and the public was told that radioactive waste was being safely stored there. But then it burped plutonium and americium that could drain into Albuquerque’s drinking water. If that doesn’t already scare people, WIPP wanted to accept more radioactive waste from Los Alamos and Idaho. It’s like we have a target on our backs.”
Victor Thorn is a hard-hitting researcher, journalist and author of over 40 books.