Local Carlsbad leaders voiced their support for a controversial plan by the federal government to use a repository near the city for disposal of excess weapons-grade plutonium that could otherwise be used to make nuclear bombs.
The comments came during a public hearing held Tuesday in Carlsbad by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) on its proposed program to dilute and dispose of 34 metric tons (MT) of surplus plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
Much of the waste, made up of plutonium pits and other materials used in the development of nuclear warheads, was stored at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas after it was deemed in excess of federal defense needs in 1994.
Under the DOE’s proposal, the waste would be shipped to Los Alamos National Laboratory for processing, then to Savannah River Site in South Carolina for packaging before final shipment to WIPP for disposal.
By that point, the waste would meet WIPP requirements for disposal as transuranic (TRU) waste, which the site is permitted to dispose of.
It would also mean the waste would cross through New Mexico three times, a sticking point for opponents of the project who argued it would put New Mexicans at a heightened risk along the transportation routes.
Public comments were being accepted on the proposal until Feb. 14, with a final decision expected by the end of the year.
The hearing was the second of four, with a previous meeting held Jan. 19 in South Carolina, one planned Thursday in Los Alamos and another being held virtually on Jan. 30.
Carlsbad resident Mary Landreth argued that eastern New Mexico was already at a disproportionate risk of nuclear exposure through ongoing WIPP operations since the facility began accepting waste in 1999.
The region is also home other nuclear facilities – the URENCO National Enrichment Facility in Eunice and the Waste Control Specialists site in Andrews, Texas.
The U.S.’ first nuclear weapons were tested at the Trinity Site near Carrizozo, and Holtec International proposed building a site near Hobbs to store spent nuclear fuel from reactors across the country.
Landreth said she thought security at Pantex should be increased and the waste should be stored there until another repository was available, although WIPP is presently the U.S.’ only deep geological repository that can dispose of nuclear waste.
“I don’t want eastern New Mexico to become a nuclear waste dump,” Landreth said. “New Mexico does not have a nuclear plant in it. Why are we taking other people’s waste? I think the best solution would be to increase the security of the storage facility at Pantex.”
A series of local Carlsbad leaders spoke in favor of the project, representing the city’s government and business community, and in affirmation of the safety of the WIPP project and DOE’s operations in the area.
Carlsbad Mayor Pro-tem Edward Rodriguez said WIPP employees and officials live in the city and would not propose anything that would put their community at risk.
He pointed to a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) published recently by the NNSA contending the proposal could be achieved safely and was logistically and financially ideal to dispose of the plutonium.
“WIPP is an excellent neighbor. They’re a good citizen, they provide a lot of good services to the community. These are people we know. We in Carlsbad don’t want anything that will put anyone in Carlsbad in danger,” Rodriguez said.
“The studies have been very thorough; they have been direct and transparent. I stand in full support of the project.”
Support was also expressed by Carlsbad City Councilor JJ Chavez, members of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force and the local Chamber of Commerce.
Chair of the Task Force Jack Volpato said a similar process was already in use to dispose of diluted plutonium from the Savannah River Site and could continue to occur safely under the proposal.
The first shipment of that waste recently arrived at WIPP for disposal, sent directly from South Carolina to the repository after down-blending.
“This is the safe way to do things. This alternative is nothing new. We’ve done dilute and dispose plutonium in the past, and this is just an extension of this project,” Volpato said. “This is also a patriotic duty for our community to help solve the problem of excess plutonium.”
Mark Schinnerer, board member at the Carlsbad Department of Development said the proposal provided a viable solution for excess plutonium owned by the federal government, highlighting Carlsbad’s role in the solution.
“Many people want to kick the can down the road. That’s not Carlsbad,” Schinnerer said. “We understand risks. At some point, someone has to say we take on the risk, we take on the project to solve this problem.”
But Hobbs resident Lorraine Villegas, who lives about 60 miles from the WIPP site, said the risks were too high when considering traffic hazards the waste shipments would face in route to the repository.
“I drive these roads every day, I’ve seen accidents you don’t want to see,” she said. “I’m not comfortable with this much material traveling on those roads.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.