About a half-mile beneath the Chihuahua Desert in southeastern New Mexico, the finishing touches are being applied to a massive man-made cavern, not to be confused with the natural Carlsbad Caverns just down the road.
On the surface, a 16-square-mile patch of hard-scrabble terrain sustains sparse but hardy stands of mesquite and scrub oak and precious little else but distant horizon. At the end of the year, if all goes as planned, trucks will cross the barren expanse to a hole in the ground and then descend to a latticework of vaults, measuring almost a square mile, carved out of the subterranean salt dome below. There, they will deposit loads of nuclear waste.
Within the next couple of weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency will conclude three public hearings on a massive study by the Energy Department, which spent 20 years and $2 billion in planning and constructing the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, 26 miles east of Carlsbad, N.M.
If approved in November, the cavern would become the final resting place for about half of the waste created by 50 years of building nuclear bombs. Once 500,000 barrels of materials have filled the facility by 2033, the cavern will be sealed, leaving Mother Nature to go to work through geological processes to encase the barrels in a mass of salt.
By the end of 240,000 years or so, scientists told The New York Times for an article last week, the nuclear stuff would finally lose its radiation potency, and any future threat of contamination would disappear. In the meantime, the EPA must certify that the storage would be secure in the vaults for at least 10,000 years.
When it comes to disposal of things nuclear, however, nothing is as simple or clear-cut as first meets the eye. Critics of the project fear that the site could create unforeseen hazards at some distant point in the future - if not from radiation seepage through fissures in the salt, then from human activity such as drilling for water, oil or gas.
Because that particular geological formation has remained undisturbed by tectonic shifts for 240 million years, scientists argue, the probability of any natural disturbance through earthquakes is virtually nil. As for unwary future drillers, Energy Department planners have anticipated contingencies. Because the town of Carlsbad has attracted millions of tourists to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park since 1930, and because a thriving retirement community has sprung up in Carlsbad, at least a few thousand people who know about the waste site should be living in the area for some time to come. Word has a way of getting around that some areas shouldn’t have holes poked in the ground there, especially if the poking also penetrates one of the drums containing nuclear waste.
As a precaution, the Energy Department plans to declare the plot of land off-limits until 2133, or 100 years after the cavern is sealed. A fence, numerous warning signs and security guards will restrict access the area until after Super Bowl CLXVII.
After 2133, the government will then place pictographs around the area to warn intruders of the hazard zone, just in case future Americans are experiencing one of their periodic education crises. For literate intruders, signs also will appear in seven languages, including Russian and Spanish, in the event that English has become a dead language.
Another plan is also on the drawing board. Some planners have proposed building a three-story-high earthen berm around the perimeter of the site, with a field of tall basalt spikes along the interior base, to deter any aggressively intrusive drilling crews.
Whether the salt cavern meets the technical criteria for storing such hazardous material safely for thousands of years is a matter of scientific and engineering expertise. The beauty of the extensive planning, however, is in its provision beyond the next fiscal year.
If the project serves no other purpose, one of its greatest values could be to help refocus public attention beyond the modern age’s quest for passions of the moment. People demand tax cuts now, or the preservation of generous government entitlements, at the expense of building the schools, bridges, water systems, libraries, museums and other elements of infrastructure essential to a worthwhile society of the future.
Today’s children need to learn, as so many of the adults around them apparently have not, that they have inherited a legacy of dreams and risks that were dared by people who knew they would never meet the present generation. They cared enough about those who came after them to plant trees, as the old adage goes, in whose shade they would never rest.
Civilizations don’t build themselves one quarterly financial report at a time; rather, they do so by cultivating a vision that sees beyond the horizon of the present generation, and then daring to plot the course toward nobler destinations. Reaching out to 240,000 years may be asking a bit much, but thinking beyond Alan Greenspan’s occasional gastric distress over interest rates and TV’s February rating sweeps would be an agreeable beginning.
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