ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – With the government’s only permanent nuclear waste dump shuttered indefinitely by back-to-back accidents, officials are making plans to ship radioactive waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory to rural West Texas.
The Department of Energy and the operator of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico say they have signed an agreement with Waste Control Specialists to truck the waste to its site in Andrews County.
The agreement will help Los Alamos meet a June deadline for getting the last of thousands of barrels of plutonium-contaminated clothing, tools, rags and other debris off its northern New Mexico campus before wildfire season hits its peak.
The waste, which is shipped and stored in huge sealed canisters, would come back to New Mexico for final disposal once the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant reopens.
Not everyone applauded the plan. Watchdog Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said shipping the waste twice increases the chance of an accident because it has to be loaded and unloaded twice. And he notes that “there is essentially no danger of wildfire, the surrounding vegetation having been burned.”
The West Texas site has in the past taken some less toxic waste from Los Alamos, but the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the nation’s only permanent repository for low-level radioactive waste from nuclear weapons facilities.
Waste Control Specialists is licensed to take radioactive materials such as uranium, plutonium and thorium from commercial power plants, academic institutions and medical schools, as well as some DOE waste. It is also the burial ground for dirt from a Hudson River Superfund site that’s tainted with PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls.
The state of New Mexico pressured Los Alamos to get the waste off its campus in the northern New Mexico mountains following a massive 2011 wildfire that lapped at the edges of lab property. The waste from decades of bomb building has been stored outside on a mesa. Following the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant shutdown, the state and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., emphasized that the deadline was non-negotiable.