In most places, a hole in the ground is just wasted space. Here in New Mexico, we have two famous holes in the ground, both of which create a lot of jobs and money. And only one of them is filled with nuclear waste.
I’m talking about the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, one of the world’s mightiest underground natural wonders, and the WIPP site – that’s the one for storing what are called trans-uranic nuclear wastes.
Since it opened in 1999, the WIPP site has accepted and tucked 2150 feet underground, over 160,000 55- and 100-gallon drums of transuranic waste.
Which means, by 2018 it was roughly half full. Until the Trump Department of Energy changed the calculations. Fullness was no longer based on the size of the barrels, but the size of what the barrels contained. Suddenly 50 percent full became 40 percent full, just like that.
Full of what? Well, right now, trans-uranic wastes – radioactive, to be sure, but relatively low-grade in both its national security and human health implications. But, that too, could change. There are plans to change the whole original deal that authorized the federal government to use southeastern New Mexico as its repository – as its only repository – for the least toxic trash from places like Los Alamos National Labs.
Change the deal how?
Well, if your town was going to swallow a radioactive waste dump what would be, to you, the three crucial questions?
To me, they would be, what are you going to dump? How much? And for how long?
The answers to those questions, written down when the WIPP deal was made, are suddenly, all three, up for change.
Oh, and there’s another change in the works for southeastern New Mexico. Another hole in the ground. This one will also contain nuclear wastes. More dangerous wastes than both those already stored at the WIPP site and those apparently headed WIPP’s way.
The plan for the Holtec Hole, about 12 miles distant from the WIPP site on sometimes cattle-grazing land, is to take in spent nuclear fuel rods. 120,000 metric tons of them, ready for burial in 10,000 canisters holding 12 metric tons each. The term of intake is 40 years, but there’s a built-in option for another 40 if the Hole isn’t full by 2060.
“I think people think this is somehow like WIPP. It’s not,” says John Heaton, a former state legislator who is the leading local proponent of the Holtec Hole project. “This is a private project, this is a private company dealing with private utilities. It’s not a public operation.”
He says that is a good thing. But it scares other people half to death.
Aria Alamalhodaei covers California and the Southwest from Albuquerque. Her work has appeared in a variety of popular and academic publications, including The NM Political Report and Mother Jones.