Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
By Isabella Alves/Journal North
Spanning the length of the state, U.S. Highway 285 is a major thoroughfare for truck transports and other traffic. This busy highway, nicknamed “Death Highway” due to the number of fatal accidents on it, may get busier.
Concerned citizens in Santa Fe County recently called out the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for expanding its mission in a permit renewal application to include more nuclear waste being shipped along the 285 corridor.
Part of Highway 285 goes along the southern edge of the city of Santa Fe, and local activists are calling on local and federal leaders to halt this increase in nuclear waste transportation.
The permit application is requesting to add two nuclear waste storage panels to WIPP that would increase the waste volume in these areas. The permit renewal was filed July 30 and, if granted, wouldn’t increase the volume capacity of nuclear waste set by Congress in the Land Withdrawal Act for the plant.
“NMED is in litigation with the DOE for its failure to clean up legacy waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory. A successful resolution of the lawsuit is increased shipments of legacy waste from Los Alamos to WIPP,” James Kennedy, state Environment Department Cabinet secretary, said via email.
“The DOE and Nuclear Waste Partnership continuing to accept out-of-state waste streams or any new waste streams in lieu of cleaning up and shipping legacy waste from Los Alamos to WIPP is completely unacceptable,” he added.
At a recent Santa Fe County Town Hall, activist Cindy Weehler of 285 ALL said the U.S. Department of Energy made it clear that it’s going to expand its nuclear waste program, she said. She said she’s concerned about the new type of radioactive waste that would be traveling through the county, which would be diluted plutonium, instead of contaminated items.
This is consistent with a notice of intent published by the department in December 2020.
According to the notice, the National Nuclear Security Administration said there needs to be a Surplus Plutonium Disposition Program for surplus plutonium disposal. Part of this is a “dilute and dispose” approach for plutonium down blending, which is a chemical process to dilute the plutonium’s potency, and “would require new, modified, or existing capabilities” at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
“The Department of Energy’s (DOE) goal is to complete its missions safely and efficiently, including the continued reduction in the amount of transuranic waste at LANL and creating a safer environment for the surrounding communities,” a U.S. Department of Energy spokesperson said via email. “DOE notifies state authorities weeks in advance of all shipments to WIPP, which are done in strict accordance with federal rules and regulations and state law.”
On average, there are about seven waste shipments a week that travel to WIPP through Santa Fe County from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Idaho National Laboratory. In the coming months, pending any pandemic impacts, this number is expected to increase to 10 to 12 shipments per week.
“They have chosen a very unsafe way to deal with the surplus plutonium problem,” Weehler said. “It’s unsafe to our neighborhoods and I think, if people are going to be put at risk, like we are with this new mission, they deserve to know about it.”
Don Hancock, nuclear waste program director at the Southwest Research and Information Center, said the original type of waste being disposed of at WIPP were plutonium-contaminated items, such as gloves and other equipment that came into contact with the radioactive material.
Now, the plant is expected to dispose of the diluted plutonium, which is much more potent than contaminated material — and poses a greater safety risk. Hancock said they expect “a lot” of shipments to the plant and it’s hard to drill down an exact number.
This expansion is going to affect more than just Santa Fe County, it will impact people statewide, Weehler said. She said safety issues, such as preparing emergency responses for a nuclear waste spill if there’s an accident along the highway, will be left up to the local municipalities.
For Santa Fe County, this emergency response falls to its emergency management director who, Communications Coordinator Carmelina Hart said, has a background in these types of responses.
“In the event of an emergency, the County’s role would be the initial evaluation, perimeter control and activation of all our state and federal partners who specialize in these responses,” Hart said in an email. “The County maintains relationships with the other agencies in the realm of emergency management. We have participated in full-scale exercises with the Department of Energy and local public safety teams.”
She said the county is reimbursed $15,000 annually by the Department of Energy’s WIPP program for emergency response preparations the county must maintain. The county also is working to identify additional training and equipment needs should nuclear waste transportation changes occur.
Santa Fe County Commissioner Hank Hughes said he has lived in Santa Fe before there was a WIPP project and has shared citizens’ concerns about nuclear waste transportation for many years. He said expanding WIPP’s mission might mean more nuclear waste traveling through Santa Fe County.
He said the county is as equipped as it can be to handle an accident. Since the transportation is considered classified information, local governments aren’t notified when nuclear waste is headed their way.
“I think the concern is, while it’s very unlikely that there would be any leak of radioactive material — even if there was an accident — just increasing the number of trucks going through Santa Fe County raises that possibility,” Hughes said.
Since nuclear waste is handled on a federal level, it’s mostly out of the commission’s hands, he said. All the county can really do is make sure it’s prepared for an accident, and help its constituents express their concerns to the federal delegation.
And these worries haven’t gone unnoticed.
Maria Hurtado, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., said the office has received a handful of constituent calls regarding the nuclear waste transportation.
Hurtado said Leger Fernández considers the health and safety of New Mexicans her biggest priority, and she’s committed to ensuring the Energy Department and labs have the resources needed to operate safely.
Leger Fernández recently requested funding for a LANL environment cleanup in the Energy and Water appropriations bill. She also joined the federal New Mexico delegation to urge U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to oppose interim storage of spent nuclear fuel and waste in New Mexico.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the WIPP program that is continually monitored by his staff. Heinrich’s top priority is to ensure public health and safety are prioritized with any radioactive material projects in New Mexico.
He also maintains it’s important to have public participation and transparency in the discussions surrounding radioactive waste disposal.