What Is WIPP? Who are Holtec? What Do They Propose? & Why Should I Care?

NM”s history of involvement in the nuclear industry stretches to its birth, witht our finger prints are on Hiroshima, our Down Winders , unknowingly and unwillingly, bearing the consequences of testing for that day. Our legacy for absorbing the impact of poorly thought out nuclear power decisions spans decades: Church Rock, WIPP and now Holtec. We need to become informed as it is coming.

Retake Our Democracy on KSFR 101.1 FM, Saturday June 8 at 8:30am with Jen Gose, Democratic candidate for NM House in District 54 where she is facing off against the GOP Minority Leader James Townsend.  I recorded the show yesterday afternoon and must admit I was quite impressed with how articulate she is. District 54 is in southeast NM. The district is about the size of Connecticut, i.e. huge geographically. Jen does a great job articulating the unique challenges faced by her community and in describing some of the limitations of her challenger….although she was very diplomatic. Interestingly, Jen is running in District 54 which is home to the WIPP and the proposed Hotlec nuclear storage facility and she has quite a bit to say about it.  So, this is worth a listen as you can learn a bit about the challenges faced by residents of Carlsbad, Snowcraft and Artesia. Roxanne and I are planning a trip down to this region in the summer and maybe even take a shot at canvassing for Jen.

Clarification about September 20. Several folks pointed out that the link to more information about plans for a General Strike took you to a site from Europe where they are striking on the 27th.  I haven’t been able to identify a US site with a set of intended actions on the 20th, but have found over a dozen credible articles pointing to the 20th as the day of the strike here in the US, including one from Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and NNimmo Bassey and with a gazillion signatories of note. So, it is clearly coming and in Santa Fe a FB event has been posted by the local youth-led chapter of the Sunshine Movement.
On 20 September, at the request of the young people who have been staging school strikes around the world, we’re walking out of our workplaces and homes to spend the day demanding action on the climate crisis, the greatest existential threat that all of us face. It’s a one-day climate strike, if you will – and it will not be the last. This is going to be the beginning of a week of action all over the world. And we hope to make it a turning point in history.”  McKibben, Klein, Bassey, in Common Dreams
, Click here to review the full Common Dreams declaration. It is a powerful piece. Look for updates here The Santa Fe Sunrise Movement has announced plans for a General Strike here in Santa Fe on Sept. 20 so put it in your calendar. You can RSVP, click here and tell friends. I am sure more details will emerge soon.

What Is WIPP?  Who are Holtec? What Do They Propose? & Why Should I Care?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the process of evaluating a license to develop a temporary radioactive waste storage site in Southern New Mexico on about 1,000 acres halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs. The plan calls for construction of a 23-foot-deep underground chamber for storage of containers of spent fuel rods discarded from nuclear power plants. The Governor has announced her opposition to the plan saying “it poses an unacceptable risk to New Mexicans.”
[Update from Sunday June 9:  Devin Bent pointed out the full quote from MLG: “Any disruption of agricultural or oil and gas activities as a result of a perceived or actual incident would be catastrophic to New Mexico, and any steps toward siting such a project [spent fuel rod storage] could cause a decrease in investment in two of our state’s biggest industries,”  It makes clear that she views gas and oil as untouchable in NM. She will defend it not just from Holtec, but from environmentalists who feel we need to find a way to keep it in the ground. The attitude is: we are only a small piece in the climate change puzzle and we are dependent on G&O revenue so drill we will. As long as all with oil adopt this attitude, we are doomed. Who persists in something destined to doom their children?  Sadly, when there is profit to be had or revenue to be made, far too many will persist. A very troubling reality.
New Mexico is already home to the only existing nuclear waste disposal site in the nation. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the nation’s only deep geologic long-lived radioactive waste repository. Located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico, WIPP permanently isolates defense-generated transuranic (TRU) waste 2,150 feet underground in an ancient salt formation. I’m not a fan of either, as will be explained, but 2150 feet beneath the earth sounds a bit more comforting in 23 feet. And, frankly, serving as the nation’s first and only nuclear dumping ground for radioactive waste seems more than generous. Time to spread the joy to another state.
Seriously, those of you my age will recall the protests when the first of the nuclear plants was being proposed. A chief concern: we have no idea whatsoever what to do with the spent, highly radioactive fuel rods. We still don’t, 60 years later. The first US nuclear power plant was built in Pennsylvania in 1957. Today there are 60 plants with 98 reactors active in the US, with the most recently constructed being in 2016. So we still haven’t learned our lesson. However, ever vigilant to the financial liabilities involved in such a risky venture, and to the profit margins of industry moguls, in 1957 Congress enacted the Price Anderson Act which frees owners of nuclear plants from all liability from any disasters that might ensue. Having taken care of that, the industry developed nuclear plant after nuclear plant, despite having no clue as to where and how the spent nuclear rods could be stored. After all, there was profit to be made and Congress has made this venture risk free, at least corporate profits are free from risk, just not us humans. This is the ultimate manifestation of capitalist hubris: we can make money here, we have not liability for risk from catastrophe and no idea how to dispose or store the waste produced from our work, but let’s get started. And get started they did. This is not an isolated instance of corporate, capitalist hubris, not by a long shot: tobacco, fossil fuels, autos and smog, the list is endless. And yet our Congress continues to curry favor with its true constituents: corporations.

Throughout the 1960s, government scientists searched for an appropriate site for radioactive waste disposal, eventually testing a remote desert area of southeastern New Mexico where, 250 million years earlier, evaporation cycles of the ancient Permian Sea had left a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed. In 1979, Congress authorized WIPP, and the facility was constructed during the 1980s. Congress limited WIPP to the disposal of defense-generated TRU wastes in the 1992 Land Withdrawal Act. In 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency certified WIPP for safe, long-term disposal of TRU wastes.  On March 26, 1999, the first waste shipment arrived at WIPP from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.  Well, it appears it may be time for NM to step to the plate yet again.

A US Congressional Committee went to California to hold a hearing within sight of San Onofre Nuclear Plant and first one committee members weighed in, followed by comments from an industry watchdog: “The Federal government has failed, and continues to find a solution to our country’s nuclear waste problem, said Rep. Harley Rouda, a Democrat whose district is up the coast from the seaside San Onofre plant. Rouda is concerned because the plant sits on in the middle of California earthquake territory, something that failed to deter its owners when building the plant. But with 8.4 million living within 50 miles of the plant, you can understand his eagerness to find a more permanent place to store the spent rods, say maybe New Mexico.  Certainly NM has a rich legacy of involvement in the nuclear industry with our history of: developing nuclear capacity in the first place (Sandia, Los Alamos),  for absorbing consequences of testing nuclear weapons (Down Winders), for absorbing the impacts from uranium extraction (Church Rock), and for absorbing responsibility for storing nuclear waste (WIPP) . With that resume, where else would you look?
But not so fast: “There is not consensus about health and safety standards, including whether commercial spent fuel is safe where it is, ” said Don Hancock, of the Southwest Research and Information Center, a non-profit watchdog group.  “If it is safe where it is, why move it?  If it is not safe where it is, how can it be safe to transport through many other communities?”  I’d add another two questions:  Why the hell didn’t someone consider this 50 years ago?  And is anyone asking about the safety of the “permanent” storage of this waste here in NM?   Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (half the radioactivity will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. That is a long time.
Yet, the Nation turns its eyes to NM yet again, with Holtec proposing another facility in southeast NM. What could go wrong?  We’ll be researching the various scenarios and the state of storage technology. But given our Nation’s history of developing plants with no plans for storage, you can’t have too much confidence in our ability to actually consider the interests of human beings nearby. After all, Price Anderson spares industry of liability, money can be made, might as well play a shell game with the radioactivity and dump it here in NM. If this concerns you, there is going to be a panel discussion in Santa Fe in ten days and it should shed some light both on the risks and upon the level of political will in NM to resist. And Retake will report more on this.
Wednesday, June 19, 6:00 – 7:30 pm, Center for Progress and Justice, 1420 Cerrillos Road, Santa Fe, NM.  Panel Discussion on The WIPP and Holtec’s Proposal to Build Another Nuclear Storage Facility in NM.   Retake is promoting this for two reasons. First, the topic and panelists warrant it. But secondly, this kind of forum is precisely the kind of issue-focused event that we had been encouraging the local Democratic Party to organize and promote. Kudos to the Democratic Party of Santa Fe for hosting this important discussion. This forum explores issues with two New Mexico nuclear storage facilities—WIPP, opened in 1999 to store low-to-mid level military waste, and a proposed facility to be built by Holtec International to handle high-level waste from 98 nuclear power plants across the nation.  Holtec’s proposal and possible changes at WIPP raise serious concerns to be discussed by our distinguished panelists:
  • NM Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia RichardGovern
  • State Representative Christine Chandler (District 43), representing Los Alamos; formerly, attorney with Los Alamos National L aboratory
  • Don Hancock, Director, Nuclear Waste Program at Southwest Research and Information Center
  • Sally Rodgers, Environment Policy Advisor for former NM governors; Conservation Voters NM founder
  • Panel Moderator: Cheryl Rofer, former LANL chemist

Both WIPP and the Holtec project demand our attention. WIPP is the only U.S. permanent storage repository and receives nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Lab and from other defense facilities across the nation.  Recently, those shipments have increased. The Department of Energy has sought changes in types of waste and volume measurements, which could affect WIPP. The Holtec project is waiting for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build its facility, which could receive spent fuel rods from  nuclear reactors, mostly from the East Coast. The waste is to stay in a facility close to Carlsbad until a permanent facility is built elsewhere. None has been agreed upon.  This timely forum is sponsored by the Democratic Party of Santa Fe’s Platform and Resolutions Committee (SF-PARC) and Nuclear Safety Advocates Group (NSAG) that comprises the SF-PARC sub-committee on Nuclear Safety.

Haven’t we heard this before. From the start, the nuclear industry was predicated on a willful willingness to suspend belief:  we will figure out what to do with this stuff in the future.  Well the future has come and there is still no plan. So just ship this highly radioactive stuff across the country, through innumerable communities and park it here, again, in New Mexico, the land of enchantment.  Trust us, we are working really hard on a genuine, more permanent solution.

See you at the panel and look for more from us about the issue in coming posts.

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne










Categories: Climate Change, Agriculture, Land Use and Wildlife

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3 replies

  1. It is incorrect to say that there has never been a plan for nuclear waste disposal. In fact there have been any number of plans starting with ones from the late 1950’s (mostly involving geological isolation such as at WIPP). For an overview see:


  2. I don’t get it, Paul. Our governor is quoted in the ABQ Journal:

    “Any disruption of agricultural or oil and gas activities as a result of a perceived or actual incident would be catastrophic to New Mexico, and any steps toward siting such a project [spent fuel rod storage] could cause a decrease in investment in two of our state’s biggest industries,”

    It seems to be official that neither our Democratic Governor nor our Democratic legislature have any interest in limiting oil and gas production in this state. We have ambitious plans not to burn oil and gas, but we intend to sell it to others and presumably — they will burn it.

    So, now what? If we are serious about fighting climate change, what do we do now?

  3. Devin is right!

    They don’t care about our health, or the livability of the state, only the impact on oil and gas!

    I hope that someone is compiling a list of the activities of Holtec, and how they are under investigation in other states. https://www.propublica.org/article/holtec-international-george-norcross-tax-breaks It is not hard to figure out how they are easily influencing our local politicians.

    We mustn’t forget the kitty litter incident, https://www.businessinsider.com/kitty-litter-nuclear-waste-accident-2016-8

    “Investigators also discovered the trigger of the “thermal runaway event,” also known as an “explosion”: a dangerous combination of nitric acid and salts, triethanolamine, and “sWheat Scoop” organic kitty litter. (The DOE mentions the brand almost 400 times in its report.) ”

    They tried to blame it on a typo, but numerous people would have had to see it, and not even question the use of organic kitty litter.

    The administration is now reclassifying nuclear waste, https://www.energy.gov/articles/department-energy-publishes-interpretation-high-level-radioactive-waste

    Today the Trump Administration unilaterally changed the definition of waste stored at #Hanford and other nuclear waste sites nationwide, opening the door for the feds to walk away from cleaning up millions of gallons of toxic, radioactive waste. @AGOWA https://t.co/05FqduhDGc

    — Governor Jay Inslee (@GovInslee) June 5, 2019



    “I understand we have to solve this problem,” says Tommy Taylor, director of oil and gas development at Fasken Oil and Ranch, a Texas-based company with wells near the proposed site. “[But] don’t put this in an oil field. That’s a bad idea. Certainly not the biggest oil field the United States has.”

    It looks like the Oil and Gas lobbyists have already gotten the governors ear!

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