Why small towns want nuclear waste dumps

Crews from Waste Control Specialists load the first of two containers with low-level radioactive waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico into a reinforced 8-inch-thick concrete container at the 90-acre federal dump near Andrews, Tex., in 2013. (Betsy Blaney/AP)

A nuclear-waste disposal site in New Mexico closed in February after a radiation leak forced an evacuation.

Yet residents near the site want it reopened.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz promised Monday he would get the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad up and running again, the Associated Press reported. Community members welcomed Moniz and voiced their support despite potential danger.

Investigations into the accident at WIPP uncovered a culture of unsafe practices at the site, including a history of irregular inspections. Days before the contamination at WIPP, a 29-year-old truck caught fire underground at the site. Ted Wyka, an Energy Department official leading the investigation, called the accident “preventable.”

So why does Carlsbad want nuclear waste? Because it’s worth big money.

Through WIPP, more than a thousand jobs were created for the town. According to the Alamogordo News, its annual budget is more than $200 million, which mostly covers wages. Still, that’s just a fraction of what the U.S. Energy Department has dumped into the facility.

The site cost about $2.5 billion to open, and the federal government has spent more than $6 billion on WIPP since its inception, the Albuquerque Journal reported in June. Filling the site will cost tens of billions more. And that spells job security for Carlsbad workers.


This May 10, 2014 photo provided by the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant shows waste stacks in a storage room with broken magnesium oxide bags and heat damage, seen as black streaks on the rim of the container at center, on top of a standard waste box at the WIPP site in Carlsbad, N.M. A radiation release that has indefinitely shuttered the federal government's only permanent nuclear waste dump may have been caused by a change in the type of kitty litter that is mixed with the toxic waste, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported Tuesday, May 13, 2014. A scientist who worked at the facility from 2000 to 2010, told the newspaper he believes a change from non-organic to organic litter caused a chemical reaction inside a waste drum, releasing the radioactive isotopes. (AP Photo/Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) Waste stacks in a storage room with broken magnesium oxide bags and heat damage, seen as black streaks on the rim of the container at center, on top of a standard waste box at the WIPP site in Carlsbad, N.M.  (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant via AP)


Workers underground inside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant facility in Carlsbad, N.M. (U.S. Department of Energy via AP)

Carlsbad isn’t alone. Officials in Loving County, Tex., which has just 95 people, hope to persuade the government to spend $28 billion to dispose of high-level radioactive waste there.

“We could build some roads,” said Skeet Jones, a county judge, told the New York Times. “We could bring in some more water. We could have a town that’s incorporated, have a city council, maybe even start a school.”

There’s no shortage of nuclear waste to spur such dreams. In 2011, the United States had nearly 72,000 tons of the radioactive junk but few places to put it, the Associated Press reported.

Finding new places to dump waste has proved difficult because parsing out how to store it properly takes a long time. So the waste sits on sites where it is created.

Loving and Carlsbad aside, not everyone wants a dump — the preferred term is a “repository” — nearby. A lot of Nevadans were happy to see the Obama administration pull the plug on a dump site for high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain.

After all, waste can remain radioactive for a quarter of a billion years. Officials can’t be sure what happens to it — or how to warn visitors away.

A sign might not help. As a 99% Invisible podcast pointed out in May, “language, like radioactive materials, has a half life.” What’s understandable today — say, the symbol for radioactivity — won’t be in a thousand years.

One proposal suggested marking sites with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

Roman Mars, host of the podcast, concluded: “I’m all for taking care of people 10,000 years in the future, but I think the best way to do that is to start taking care of people who are alive today.”

Correction: A previous version of this post indicated that WIPP only accepted “low-level nuclear waste.” In fact, the site accepts TRU, or transuranic waste, which is defined differently than low-level radioactive waste by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.




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Justin Wm. Moyer and Nick Kirkpatrick · August 12, 2014

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