New Mexico Nuke Dump Fine With Most Neighbors

After a long legal fight, storage site will receive its first loads of radioactive waste.

Like most folks here, Kent Frink doesn't worry about the newly certified nuclear-waste dump 26 miles south of town. In fact, it's the reason he bought the Sidekicks Diner last year.

"The more people we get in this town, the more people I feed," says Mr. Frink, taking a break from the heat of the kitchen. "That's what I'm in business for."

Such an attitude may mystify the "not in my backyard" crowd, but it's music to the ears of federal officials and employees at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad, N.M. Last week, WIPP received a crucial certification from the Environmental Protection Agency, allowing it to receive up to 850,000 barrels of contaminated tools, clothing, and other items from 10 nuclear-weapons facilities around the country.

Built in 1986 but idled for 12 years by court challenges, WIPP is scheduled to receive its first shipment on June 19, from the weapons facility at Los Alamos, N.M., 300 miles to the north.

The controversy surrounding the $2 billion WIPP program rests on one question: Will the ancient salt formation, where the mile-square complex of tunnels is located, keep nuclear waste from leaching into groundwater? Federal officials and scientists say it will. But an ongoing stream of lawsuits filed by environmentalists and residents argue that more studies are needed.

Built in the middle of an ancient salt formation 2,150 feet below, WIPP is designed to permanently isolate nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for thousands of years. Scientists and other supporters say this site is well suited for the task, since the salt formation has been undisturbed for 250 million years.

"It's like a giant natural trash compactor," says Jay Lees, spokesman for WIPP, giving a tour through the complex of corridors and rooms beneath the New Mexico desert. "At this depth, this salt bed is under tremendous pressure. The salt fractures and moves inward, until it collapses."

Mr. Lees parks the orange cart at the far end of the main corridor and points the light from his miner's hard hat into a 300-foot- long chamber. "This will be the first spot that will receive nuclear waste," he says. "We'll stack the barrels three high, 6,800 of them per room. You've heard of the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada? That's a depository, like a bank. This is a repository. It'll be permanent."

Not surprisingly, this very permanence is one of the chief concerns of environmentalists and local residents, who say that WIPP is not fit for receiving nuclear waste. Indeed, they say, the site may not be as leakproof as its designers assert.

"The land out there is like Swiss cheese," says Don Hancock, director of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque. "It's one of the most active oil and gas fields in the state, and it's full of drill holes. Anywhere you put the waste in, it'll come out."

Critics also challenge the notion that WIPP will reduce the pollution at weapons-making plants, such as Hanford in Washington and Rocky Flats in Colorado, since WIPP will take only 2 percent of the overall waste. For the foreseeable future, the bulk of the waste will remain in decaying metal drums or in landfills at the 10 sites. In addition, nearly two-thirds of WIPP's capacity is being reserved for nuclear waste that hasn't been produced yet.

In Carlsbad itself, Betty Richards and fellow activist Bob Gaston lead the charge against WIPP, raising questions at public meetings and pushing for safety modifications. Such activism "doesn't make me very popular," says Ms. Richards, who owns a trailer park in the poorer south side of town. But she's given up trying to convince her neighbors. "When I started out in this, I didn't want it to open at all," she says. "Now, I just want to make sure they do it right."

While Richards and Gaston are not the only anti-WIPP activists in town, their viewpoint is definitely in the minority. One booster of the waste dump even commissioned a floor-to-ceiling portrait of WIPP's waste handling building in the dining room of the local Best Western Hotel.

From ironworker Dave McFarland's standpoint, WIPP is so full of safety measures that nothing could go wrong. He worked at the site for several months as a contractor, and would work out there again if hired.

"They're really hard-core safety conscious," he says, visiting his wife, Brenda, during her lunch break at the ammunition counter of the Silver Bell Trading Post. "Their engineers go over that place inch by inch."

Across the street, Mike Smith says the only people against WIPP are from Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Like most people in Carlsbad, he sees the WIPP site as the best solution for the country, as well as a boon for the local economy.

"You tell me what's safer: having this stuff sitting above ground in the elements or buried a half mile underground, in a salt bed that's 250 million years old," says the owner of Caveman Auto Repair. "The way I see it, we've built this thing. Let's do it."

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