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Controversy over Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) shipments
Axia College of University of Phoenix
COM 125 Utilizing Information in College Writing
Tasha Tillman
September 17, 2006

Controversy over Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) shipments When someone says the word nuclear or radioactive most people panic and are scared to death. Would one be safer transporting a trailer loaded with 9,000 gallons of gasoline or would the same person be safer transporting a loaded trailer of transuranic (TRU) waste? Therefore, transporting any commodity can be as safe as the driver transporting the commodity or the opposing traffic makes the situation. With the continued controversy over the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) site, the Department of Energy (DOE) has continued to transport transuranic (TRU) waste from different sites around the U.S. to the world’s first repository for radioactive waste. This paper will explain what the WIPP site does and where WIPP is located. Will explain the birth of the program and why. Will explain what TRU waste is. Will explain what the process of disposal is from birth to the grave. Will show what the public has to say about the program. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the world's first underground repository licensed to safely and permanently dispose of TRU waste left from the research and production of nuclear weapons. After more than 20 years of scientific study, public input, and regulatory struggles, WIPP began operations on March 26, 1999. Located in the remote Chihuahuan Desert of Southeastern New Mexico, about 30 miles east of Carlsbad, NM, project facilities include disposal rooms mined 2,150 feet underground in a 2,000-foot thick salt formation and have been stable for more than 200 million years. TRU waste is currently stored at sites nationwide. WIPP is the nation’s solution for permanently disposing of defense-related TRU waste in temporary storage at Department of Energy (DOE) sites across the country (WIPP, 2006). In 1957, the National Academy of Sciences concluded in a report commissioned by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) the most promising method of disposing of radioactive waste appears to be in underground salt deposits. In 1972, after nearly a decade of study, an underground salt mine near Lyons, Kansas, is judged unacceptable after Kansas officials raise technical concerns. The AEC officials announced they would examine southeastern New Mexico as a potential waste storage site after being invited by a group of Carlsbad leaders. In 1979, congress authorizes WIPP as a research and development facility to demonstrate the safe disposal of radioactive wastes resulting from defense activities. In 1999, after negotiations between the DOE and New Mexico failed to produce an agreement, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, now governor of New Mexico, sends the first shipments of waste to WIPP from Los Alamos National Laboratory in March 1999. Shipments follow from Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, Colorado’s Rocky Flats plant, and other sites across the United States (McCutcheon, 2002). To sell New Mexico on the role of nuclear-waste repository, especially in the wake of other schemes to ship hazardous material to the southern reaches of the state, Sen. Pete Domenici and other WIPP boosters went to enormous effort to reassure folks this would be a foolproof process. Still, there's a certain mystique surrounding Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, and the national scientific sites in Idaho, Washington, South Carolina, Nevada, and elsewhere -- originators of WIPP-bound discards (The Santa Fe New Mexican, 2004). The arrival of the first shipment to WIPP set off a celebration among Carlsbad residents eager to make a 240,000-year commitment. This is how long, give or take a few millennia, until the plutonium on clothes, tools, sludge, and other trash being buried in an ancient salt bed will deteriorate enough to be almost free of radiation. Protests and legal challenges, almost exclusively by out-of-town groups, had postponed the opening of the $1.8 billion, federal government-owned facility since its 1988 completion. Opponents continue to voice fears about using public highways to transport radioactive byproducts of the US military and nuclear research programs. Some doubt the reliability of WIPP, which will entomb the drums 2,150 feet below the cactus and tumbleweeds dotting the region. But with opponents' last-minute appeals exhausted, the plant was declared open, thrilling local leaders and most of Carlsbad's 25,000 residents, who see economic salvation and hundreds of jobs in the carcinogenic import (Zuckoff, 1999). The truck's arrival just before 4 a.m. set off cheers from about 400 people who gathered at the heavily guarded facility. A blast from the truck's horn was greeted by flag-waving, noisemakers, hugs, back- slaps, and the burst of camera flashes. "We've waited so long for this. I can't believe it finally made it," said Pat Kilgore, a WIPP employee (Zuckoff, 1999, Boston Globe, pg. A1). In anticipation of the dump's opening, the city was dotted with "Welcome WIPP" and "WIPP YES" signs, and a local radio station posted a simple message on its lawn that spoke for many here: "Finally." It would be wrong to interpret Carlsbad's embrace of the WIPP as evidence the community is immune to the not-in-my-backyard syndrome. Mayor Gary Perkowski, stated, “Recently, plans to build a mental health facility in a residential neighborhood were abandoned because of local opposition. Folks here like the WIPP, but they aren't ready for everything that means economic development.” But the economic promise of the plant was a prime factor in its acceptance. "It's not just nuclear waste that's coming in with it, its jobs and money," said Franklin Holt, a cashier at a gas station near the Carlsbad Caverns (Zuckoff, 1999, Boston Globe, pg. A1). Though most trash will come from materials used in the production of nuclear bomb and other defense-related activities, the first shipment ever to arrive at the WIPP site consisted of six 55-gallon drums of trash -- each weighing up to 1,000 pounds -- generated while building deep-space NASA probes. The drums made the trip inside three TRUPACT-II’s. Federal officials anticipate more than 37,000 such shipments, consisting of 850,000 barrels of nuclear waste; will make their way to WIPP in the next 35 years (Zuckoff, 1999). Transuranic (TRU) waste – a radioactive waste containing man-made elements with an atomic number greater than 92, radioactivity greater than 100 nanocuries per gram of waste, and a half-life greater than 20 years. TRU waste consist of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris and other such items contaminated with small amounts of radioactive elements – mostly plutonium. These elements are radioactive, man-made, and have atomic number greater than uranium – thus transuranic (beyond uranium) (WIPP, 2006). The transportation of TRU waste is in a Type B (U) package called a TRUPACT–II (WIPP into action, 2004). A Type B package is a package designed to retain the integrity of containment and shielding required when subjected to the normal conditions of transport and hypothetical accident test conditions (WIPP, 2006). A TRUPACT-II is a 10-feet-high by 8-feet-wide thermos-shaped containers built to prevent the release of radiation, even in an accident or emergency. The Half PACT is about two-thirds of the height of a TRUPACT-II but the same size in width (WIPP into action, 2004). The testing of these TRUPACT – II containers is very intense. The containers are dropped 30 feet onto an unyielding surface, dropped 40 inches onto a steel shaft to test for puncture, set on fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes, and lastly the containers are submerged 50 feet under water for eight hours to test for leakage (WIPP, 2006). The chart below will show the up-to-date number of shipments, the number of safe loaded miles traveled with all shipments, from the origin to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. There have been 5,003 shipments with 5,556,511 safe miles from various sites around the United States to the WIPP site (WIPP, 2006).
[pic]ANL – Argon National Laboratory
HS - Hanford Site
INL – Idaho National Laboratory
LLNL – Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
LANL – Los Alamos National Laboratory
NTS – Nevada Test Site
RFETS – Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site
SRS – Savannah River Site The trash destined for the WIPP will come mainly from 10 major defense-related nuclear production facilities scattered around the country, as far east as Savannah, Ga., and as far north as Hanford, Wash. A smaller amount will be sent from 14 other temporary disposal sites, laboratories, nuclear reactors, and research facilities. Several are from the Northeast, but none are from New England. Most of the material being taken to the Carlsbad dump is contaminated with plutonium, but the trash will contain other radioactive elements as well. Federal law prohibits concentrated, high-level nuclear wastes and spent nuclear fuel from disposal in the WIPP. The WIPP site will contain only government-generated nuclear waste. WIPP will not accept radioactive garbage or other wastes from commercial nuclear power plants. There is no permanent resting place for those wastes, which for now remain in temporary storage facilities or repositories (Zuckoff, 1999). Once a shipment has arrived at WIPP, drums of the TRU waste are removed from the TRUPACT II containers, transported via elevator 2150 feet below the surface, and placed in holding rooms 800 feet long, 33 feet wide, and 13 feet high. Once filled the rooms are sealed. The salt will continue to do the work to engulf the drums, seven to 10 years the ceiling will collapse. Over the next 100 to 150 years, the salts will solidity, trapping the waste. WIPP planners expect to fill 56 such rooms in the salt bed, which they say has remained remarkably stable since it was formed 225 million years ago (Zuckoff, 1999). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had decided to relax the standards for the packaging of plutonium-contaminated waste headed for WIPP. The new equipment would continue to comply with safety standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Instead of double layers of steel sealing off the nuclear garbage, most of its lab equipment and apparel, single-layer container would be allowed to be used. Double-walled containers, as originally proposed by the Environmental Evaluation Group of New Mexico must remain the transportation standard (The Santa Fe New Mexican, 2004). WIPP shipments are required to follow designated routes essentially keeping them out of Santa Fe and Albuquerque. To make sure the trucks are where they are supposed to be, an elaborate, multi-layered tracking system has been set up. Drivers must check in periodically, and trucks are monitored by a central system at WIPP, a ground-positioning satellite tracking system at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and by the State Police (Albuquerque Journal, 2000). On November 21, 2000, State Police had to stop and redirect a semi 10 miles south of Santa Fe, NM, carrying TRU waste after missing its turnoff north of Santa Fe. There are two apparent lessons to be learned in the case of a misdirected WIPP truck. The first lesson is because the driver’s error was caught shortly after error was made, the tracking system apparently works at some level. Second, is the elaborate backup system is needed (Albuquerque Journal, 2000). Certainly, the case of the misdirected truck was not a catastrophe avoided. There is nothing of value to terrorists in the shipments and gasoline tankers pose more immediate danger on the highway than a WIPP truck. Keeping the trucks out of New Mexico's biggest cities is as much an attempt to placate WIPP critics as a demonstration of the need to protect city inhabitants (Albuquerque Journal, 2000). Albuquerque City Councilor Miguel Gomez has called a news conference to discuss his effort to stop the shipments. Gomez said he plans to introduce a memorial at a City Council meeting seeking council backing to get the shipments diverted away from Albuquerque. A truck loaded with radioactive waste headed for WIPP threads the Big I, the first shipment to pass through Albuquerque. Protesters gathered on the Carlisle NE overpass on Interstate 40 to greet the first WIPP shipment to pass through Albuquerque. "No!" shouted Alma Rosa as the green truck with three casks of nuclear waste rolled east under Carlisle amid the mid-morning traffic. About a dozen protesters and a similar number of reporters waited on the bridge. Albuquerque police also were on hand to enforce state regulations against attaching protest signs to the overpass fence. Future shipments also may be greeted by more formal opposition. (Fleck, 2004, Albuquerque Journal, pg. B1). Some of the protestors think they cannot trust the Department of Energy (DOE). Protester Jeanne Rahls, a teacher, said she was there because she believes the shipments are a danger. "I don't think we should be trusting these people," Rahls said of the Department of Energy. "They've proven they are not to be trusted." Other protestors think the shipments are dangerous and should not be transported over our nation’s highways (Fleck, 2004, Albuquerque Journal, pg. B1). "WIPP is in the wrong place," said Betty Richards, who owns a mobile home park in Carlsbad and is one of only three local opponents. "They say the salt beds are so stable because they're so old, but they destabilized them by drilling into them. There are cracks and fissures there that we believe will bring waste to the surface. "It's really sad because the people here are going to be the next generation of guinea pigs by the Department of Energy," Richards said (Zuckoff, 1999, Boston Globe, pg. A1). The purpose of this essay was to neither advocate nor oppose WIPP. Instead it aimed to shed some light on the protracted process that gave birth to and nurtured the project through three decades’ worth of successes and setbacks. The project’s history raises numerous political, legal, technical, and emotional issues, all which deserve to be substantively explored. With so much nuclear waste pilling up around the United States, all sides involved appear to agree on at least one thing – additional WIPPs are more likely than not.

Fleck, J. (2004, January 9). WIPP Shipments Protested: [Final Edition]. Albuquerque Journal, p. B1. Retrieved September 14, 2006, from ProQuest Newsstand database. (Document ID: 522793821)
McCutcheon, C. (2002). Nuclear Reactions: the politics of opening a radioactive waste disposal site. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Safety, real or not, must rule WIPP. (2004, March 17). The Santa Fe New Mexican, pg. A9, Retrieved September 14, 2006, from ProQuest Newsstand database. (Document ID: 581548831)
WIPP. (2006, July). Retrieved September 14, 2006, from
WIPP into action. (2004, February). Nuclear Engineering International, 49(595), 14. Retrieved September 14, 2006, from Research Library database. (Document ID: 608259941).
WIPP truck shows tracking is necessary. (2000, November 30). Albuquerque Journal,p. A14. Retrieved September 14, 2006, from ProQuest Newsstand database. (Document ID: 64836495)
Zuckoff, M. (1999, March 27). Radioactive waste finds a new home in N.M. city. Boston Globe,p. A1. Retrieved September 14, 2006, from Business Dateline database. (Document ID: 40120922)

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