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WIPP release story doesn’t add up

First, I’m not against nuclear waste. I’m a big fan of the Manhattan Project and believe Harry Truman did the right thing and that the world has been continuously saved ever since by the possibility that it could ever happen again.

I also support southern New Mexico’s quest to be the nuclear processing economy of the country, cradle and grave. We’ve got it, they want it, and it’s never going away, so someone’s got to manage it.

The recent accident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project is unbelievable to me. Nearly 20 years ago I went to WIPP, rode the elevator down, saw the tunnels, the rooms and ventilation shafts.

There was no way a salt excavation truck burning up would result in a nuclear materials waste release. The mining operation opening a new room would be on the opposite side of an emplacement room. When one is filled it has to be pretty far away, because the retaining bolts come out, and the room undergoes a controlled collapse.

Some of the logistics of this geologic dump site had never been attempted before.

Nobody should mistake WIPP as a light-duty facility. Nuclear waste is classified by the process that made it, and not how radioactive it is. Transuranic waste, the exclusive purview of WIPP, or those things that largely don’t exist in nature that only come from nuclear reactions is classified as a subset of Low Level waste, but it contains things that are far more radioactive than anything classified as High Level Waste.

Most of the current drum materials like plutonium can’t hurt you by just standing there, however, inhaling particles of them is a total disaster. X-rays of test lab chimpanzees’ lungs show an alpha-emitter particle like a little star amongst the lung tissue discharging those big slow alpha particles (neutrons) into the unshielded DNA of the adjoining cells.

Remote handled waste, if and when shipped, will be more traditionally radioactive, needing much shielding, and is decidedly not “old lab clothing,” and neither are the contents of the current drums. I’m hoping that can stop being the tag line for every article ever written about WIPP.

Rules were relaxed first on the allowance of liquid wastes in drums, and then the amount of such liquids per drum, because a TV news report showing technicians X-raying one had a big flask of green liquid sloshing around. If the rules don’t work, change them.

I was in the focus group that asked for sacks of absorbent to be included in the drums prior to their final abandonment. I was the only person on that old tour to ask and be shown the “remote handled waste” facilities. I got to see the rail transfer room, the giant steel doors, the foot-thick glass and robotic arm stations future workers would use.

I testified my support for a more simple, less expensive monitored-retrievable shallow civil-engineered non-collapsing concrete tunnel system. I still don’t believe a “bury it under millions of pounds of pressure and forget it forever” method from the 1950s will work.

I want to hear what really happened down there.

WIPP was envisioned and engineered to never have a release for 10,000 years. They actually hired anthropologists to figure out a surface marking system that could still be read then because no human language has ever survived that long.

Really, though, I remember who I thought were the hysterical ones testifying to the endless public panels before WIPP opened. One read into the record a long scenario with specific chemicals leeching together, fire and the resulting black smoke belching from the horizon. That person described in great detail the underground circumstances leading up to the release that nobody thought would ever happen.

That person, whoever it was, was kind of old back then, and I wonder if he’s alive to see it. I’m now thinking he may get to say, “I told you so.”

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