Two earth-shaking developments in America’s broken-down attempts to store surplus weapons-grade plutonium in geological repositories rattled the world of public health and nuclear safety advocates last December and early January this year. They both have momentous implications for the disenchanting fate of southern New Mexico becoming America’s, and perhaps even the world’s, underground nuclear waste dump.
Three months ago, according to the AP, President Trump’s Department of Energy (DOE), run by former Texas governor Rick Perry, “secretly” shipped to a site north of Las Vegas, Nevada, half a metric ton of one of the most toxic substances on earth: weaponized plutonium. It came by truck from the DOE Savannah River nuclear facility in South Carolina. Part of its route was near Santa Fe. The secret shipment was sent just as Nevada state officials were negotiating with the DOE about keeping the waste out of their state.
In what must be considered a classic example of Trumpian governance by treachery and chicanery, the DOE’s flagrant disregard of legal restraint outraged Nevada officials. The Governor of Nevada, Steve Sisolak, called it a “reckless decision” and an “unacceptable deception” that made a “sham” out of Nevada’s good faith discussions with the DOE. Nevada Senator Jacky Rosen used even stronger language, calling the move “deceitful and unethical,” saying that it jeopardized “the health and safety of thousands of Nevadans and Americans who live in close proximity to shipment routes.”
Nevada, it must be noted, did not vote for Trump in the 2016 elections, nor did New Mexico. The secret shipment has the stink of a political payback. South Carolina, it should be noted as well, did vote for Trump in 2016.
If the Trump DOE can pull that kind of trickery on Nevada, it can do it to us any time it wants, especially since it looks to Washington that New Mexico actually wants high-grade nuclear waste, when in fact only the southeast part of our state seeks economic gain from plutonium and commercial spent fuel rod storage.
A month before the DOE’s secret shipment to Nevada, outgoing New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and her administration rushed into law a 33% expansion of the potential underground storage capacity at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) near Carlsbad, presumably to make room for many metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium that DOE Secretary Rick Perry has said would be shipped to New Mexico from South Carolina, the same source as the secret plutonium sent to Nevada. And now the Santa Fe New Mexican reports that “plans are already in motion to accept plutonium from Japan.”
Not only is the expansion an affront to decades of grueling struggle to keep WIPP as a non-expanding “pilot project,” if WIPP accepts high-grade plutonium, it would be breaking the central promise the federal government made to New Mexico when WIPP was conceived as a viable project in the 1970s — that it would never store anything there but low-level plutonium waste, and certainly not something as volatile and dangerous as the pure plutonium used in nuclear weapons. According to the Associated Press, plutonium is already “scheduled” to be moved to New Mexico in 2026-27, first perhaps to Los Alamos and then to WIPP. And indeed the secret shipment to Nevada might be moved much sooner to New Mexico so as to silence the outrage and defuse the moral advantage of the Nevada congressional delegation.
In mid-January this year, the Albuquerque Journal reported that NM Senator Tom Udall urged new Governor Lujan Grisham to “reconsider” the Martinez’s administration’s move to expand WIPP. Udall said that if “the DOE is asking New Mexico to take on additional waste missions besides what is authorized by current law, New Mexicans need to have a say — and we should only agree to a new agreement that is in the overall best interests of New Mexico. There needs to be ample time for public input and awareness, and we must ensure that the safety of workers and the public is protected long into the future.” Udall was emphatic when he said that “if DOE is asking New Mexico to take on additional waste missions…unilateral actions (by DOE) is absolutely not an option.”
Nevada Senator Cortez Masto told the Associated Press regarding her talks with the Trump DOE, “I made it very clear that what I was looking for was something in writing that ensures … that they do not ship plutonium here ever. No more plutonium ever comes to the state of Nevada.”
It looks like everything is pointing to New Mexico’s WIPP as being a stopgap location for high-level waste that would have gone to the now-defunct Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada. I say stopgap because most New Mexicans, other than those in Carlsbad and surrounds, feel as Nevada Senator Masto does about plutonium, and I’m sure would urge the government to find a Yucca Mountain replacement anywhere but in the Land of Enchantment. The problem, I fear, is that once plutonium is dumped, it will take a supernatural effort to undump it and send it elsewhere.
The Nevada plutonium crisis, and New Mexico’s, stems from South Carolina’s concerted effort to get some 61.5 metric tons of surplus nuclear weapons-grade plutonium out of storage at the DOE’s nuclear R and D facility at Savannah River. South Carolina is currently suing the DOE over its removal. Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS) reported in January that the Obama Administration plan to mix the plutonium with uranium to turn it into fuel for nuclear power plants proved to be too costly and was ended in 2018, leaving South Carolina still holding the bag.
Once again we see the dread reverberations of failed elections. Heaven only knows how much weapons-grade plutonium the Trump DOE will dump in WIPP, or if we find ourselves with barrels upon barrels of legacy radioactive nitric acid from the overflowing Hanford plutonium plant in the state of Washington, or if any other kinds of lethal nuclear odds and ends will find their way to WIPP under the cover of Trumpian tweets and run-of-the-mill bureaucratic lawlessness and deceit.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it