Yes, In Our Backyard

After more than a decade with a nuclear waste dump next door, the sky has not fallen on Carlsbad

Okay, so Yucca Mountain hasn’t worked out so well. In fact, the current betting is that the planned Nevada repository for nuclear waste will never open its doors. No matter. New Mexico beckons.

Craig Miller

A transport container for nuclear waste, outside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Few Americans seem to realize that the world’s only functioning geologic repository for nuclear waste of any kind is already open for business in the southeastern corner of New Mexico. In fact, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is well beyond the “pilot” phase. It’s been taking in truckloads of the stuff since 1999, without mishap, it’s success no doubt a factor in its anonymity.

An average of 30 truckloads a week from all corners of the US, roll into what is essentially a glorified salt mine, licensed by the federal government to accept low-level “transuranic” waste from defense-related facilities only.

The waste is “isolated” 2,000 feet below ground in the saline remains of the vast Permian Sea that covered the region more than 200 million years ago.

On a recent tour of the underground tunnels or “drifts” where the waste is entombed,  my guide, Bobby St. John, picked up a marble-sized salt crystal and pointed to a tiny bubble trapped inside. “That right there,” he said, “is a 230-million-year-old drop of water.”

It’s about the only water in evidence, part of what makes this a promising place to put away radioactive cast-offs for good. The other is the virtual absence of seismic potential, something that has dogged proponents of Yucca Mountain.

You can tag along on my tour by listening to the radio report that accompanies this post, airing on The California Report as the final installment of our three-part series on the nuclear waste dilemma. You can also watch a video segment on WIPP produced by the PBS program Need to Know.

Tune in to the companion radio series: Part 1: California’s nuclear waste profile. Part 2 (Tue): What we can learn from Sweden. Part 3 (Wed): The town that said: “Yes, in our back yard.”