Santa Fe residents would see shipments of plutonium trucked through the city’s southern edge if federal agencies carry out plans announced nearly a year ago.

The prospect worries activists, local officials and some residents because plutonium is far more radioactive than the waste — contaminated gloves, equipment, clothing, soil and other materials — shipped from Los Alamos National Laboratory to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground disposal site near Carlsbad.

The U.S. Department of Energy issued a notice of intent in December to begin the process for an environmental impact statement as one of the first steps toward diluting and disposing of plutonium left from the Cold War.

The notice hints that “downblending” the plutonium would be necessary to reduce radioactivity enough for the waste to be accepted at WIPP, which only takes low-level nuclear waste.

Opponents’ main concern is the 26 metric tons of cast-off plutonium bomb cores, or pits, that are being kept at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas.

This plutonium would be sent to the Los Alamos lab where it would be turned into an oxide powder, and then the powder would be shipped to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where it would be further diluted before returning to New Mexico for storage at WIPP.

That would mean a more hazardous substance would be transported twice on N.M. 599 and U.S. 84/285 — when the plutonium comes in from Pantex and when the lab ships the powder, which can be highly toxic if released, said Cindy Weehler, who co-chairs the watchdog group 285 ALL.

“It will change the amount of transportation risk that we’re exposed to,” Weehler told an audience gathered for a town hall meeting Tuesday at the Nancy Rodriguez Community Center in Santa Fe.

The Energy Department is quietly putting these plans in place, Weehler said. She called the secrecy unacceptable, arguing people have a right to know if they’ll be at risk.

Agency officials didn’t respond to emailed questions on whether the Biden administration aims to move ahead with a Trump-era decision to dilute and dispose of the plutonium and, if so, what the timeline would be.

Although the agency is saying little about its plans, the National Academy of Sciences describes how the Cold War plutonium would be transported, reconstituted and disposed of at WIPP in its April 2020 analysis.

The lab is the only place where plutonium can be changed into a powdered form, and WIPP is the only site in the country that takes nuclear weapons waste, so the increased hauling of these materials through New Mexico would be unavoidable, said Don Hancock, director of nuclear waste safety for the nonprofit Southwest Research and Information Center.

“It’s disingenuous to say some of it might go someplace else when there is no someplace else,” Hancock said.

N.M. 599 was designed so nuclear materials being trucked to and from the lab would bypass the heart of Santa Fe.



But Weehler contends if a truck accident caused a breach in a container, it could still endanger some neighborhoods, especially if the plutonium powder is released.

The powder is toxic to breathe in — the fine grains can embed in the lungs, causing respiratory problems — and it can contaminate soil so extensively it’s impossible to purge, she said.

Aside from concerns about local communities, the plutonium will travel through a dozen states, totaling more than 3,000 miles, she said.

Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen, who helped organize the town hall meeting, said if the plutonium is going to be shipped to Savannah River, the federal government should build an East Coast repository for it instead of sending it back to New Mexico.

The federal government also should quit producing new plutonium pits, which will create even more waste that must be dealt with, Hansen said.

Eletha Trujillo, WIPP’s program manager, said the nuclear waste that’s transported in fortified containers known as TRUPACTs is extremely well protected.

The lids alone weigh 4,000 pounds each, making it virtually impossible for hijackers to gain access to the waste barrels, she said.

The trucks are set to go no faster than 65 mph to minimize the chances of a serious accident, Trujillo said, adding the trucks are constantly tracked and monitored.

“I know where every truck is in the U.S. if it’s leaving the WIPP site,” she said.

While the diluted plutonium shipped from Savannah River will be in those containers, Hancock said, the oxide powder departing from the Los Alamos lab will not.

The Energy Department originally sought to build a Savannah River facility that could turn Cold War plutonium into a mixed oxide fuel for commercial nuclear plants.

But after billions of dollars in cost overruns and years of delays, the Trump administration scrapped the project and decided to go with diluting and disposing of the waste. Meanwhile, plans call for turning Savannah River’s defunct mixed-oxide facility into a plutonium pit plant.

Hancock said there is no other method for getting rid of surplus plutonium, so Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm will likely stick with the plan she inherited.

Hansen said she would prefer if Los Alamos were not involved. And the federal government should find a way to dilute and dispose of the waste in one area rather than shipping it thousands of miles, which increases the chance of an accident, she said. “The more we move it around, the more danger we are projecting onto our citizens.”

(24) comments

Ann Maes

Well, I’ve taken names, though it might be too late. I still will not be voting for anyone Republican or Democrat that in any way supports WIPP, LANL, nuclear weapons, and any transportation of plutonium in any robust anything!

Joe Brownrigg

In addition to the issues raised in the article AND the excellent analysis by Greg Mello, there is a continuing insidiousness afoot: New Mexico is continually treated as a fourth-rate Colony, not a State. How long do we have to be the dumping ground and the site of self-serving, insitutional, and misleading disaster capitalism? LANL is primarily a money-hungry institution, NOT a place of "national security." How long????

Ann Maes

Agreed!

Khal Spencer

As Greg Mello suggests, the state is also a dumping ground for Federal pork. Our Democratic leadership may feel like they have made a Faustian bargain with these projects but I suspect their deal with the devil is sealed in greenbacks.

So if some of these projects look like the proverbial self-licking ice cream cone, that's probably the point.

John Bass

This story could have run 20 years ago. It’s not news, just more recycled anti-Lab hate mongering for “activists” to get the chance to vent. Sure, 599 was built as a bypass. How many accidents by the TruPacs have occurred there. Yep, zip. How many accidents have occurred en-route, a few to be sure. However, NONE have resulted in any kind of massive radiation release as feared by commenters on this thread. The cult of “what if,”always peaks with local activists. If any of them saw a Trupac being loaded and how strongly it’s built, they might change their mind.

I wouldn’t bet on that happening, though. Gotta tow the narrative’s line no matter what.

Dennis McQuillan

The National Academies report cited in the New Mexican article identified the increased number of plutonium transports as a safety concern. There is no doubt that plutonium transportation packaging is more robust than a gasoline tanker, or a truck load of household products containing hazardous materials. The concerns of people who live along plutonium transportation routes, however, must be properly addressed and not minimized or dismissed. History provides many examples of how technology can fail.

Another issue is whether plutonium dilution and disposal at WIPP will meet the goal of making surplus plutonium unavailable for use in nuclear weapons. The National Academies report explains that diluted plutonium disposed at WIPP could be retrieved and reprocessed for weapons use by the U.S. or even by nefarious non-state or third-state actors. In fact, waste retrievability is a regulatory requirement for WIPP.

It profoundly ironic that it will take billions of dollars and decades to disposition the tons of surplus plutonium that it took billions of dollars and decades to manufacture in the first place. And the plant that was supposed to convert surplus plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel is now going to make plutonium triggers to modernize our nuclear arsenal.

Billions of people who live on this increasingly polluted and warming planet do not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Yet the barbaric human race continues to squander mineral resources and human lives in the pursuit of weaponry and warfare. The concept of converting swords into plowshares was put forth thousands of years ago, but there has never been a more important time to do so than now.

https://www.who.int/news/item/18-06-2019-1-in-3-people-globally-do-not-have-access-to-safe-drinking-water-unicef-who

Jay Coghlan

“It is worse than useless to say one is opposed to pit production in general while supporting it at LANL, which Don and his Nuclear Watch project have done for many years.”

How convenient for Mello to misrepresent the position of others as he has repeatedly done so in the past. Perhaps he can explain his support for plutonium pit bomb core production at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. The Los Alamos Lab will always have inherent factors that limit pit production (topography, culture, local opposition, etc.). At SRS we don’t know what the limit will be in the accelerating second nuclear arms race.

Mello has done this before with his support for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s new Kansas City Plant. That new Plant is now cranking out more than 100,000 nonnuclear components a year to totally rebuild the existing nuclear weapons stockpile with new military capabilities.

Strange positions to take for one who claims to be a nuclear weapons abolitionist.

Jay Coghlan

Nuclear Watch New Mexico

ww.nukewatch.org

Sidney Monroe

"N.M. 599 was designed so nuclear materials being trucked to and from the lab would bypass the heart of Santa Fe." That was decades ago, before developments have placed hundreds of homes in close proximity to 599. And many more very closeby.

Khal Spencer

So if 599 was meant as a transportation route for hazardous substances, who decided to allow all those homes to be there? This is a little like buying a home at the end of the airport runway and then complaining about the noise from the planes.

Joe Brownrigg

We live in one of those houses, Khal. We were certainly NOT informed that 599 was a nuclear hazard route!! AND it has not been used for that purpose, primarily during the last decades.

So far as planing is concerned, I don't think that is the forte of Santa Fe, nor is it so for most of our cities. In actual cities it was usually referred to as "Urban Removal."

Khal Spencer

My point exactly. The state built the route as a bypass and has, ever since, ignored all sorts of hazards in the holy name of selling land and building homes. The biggest risk on that road, by far, being that it is a high speed highway with multiple at-grade intersections where high speed crashes occur and actually do kill or injure people. On my regular bicycle ride, I cross 599 at Camino de las Montoyas. Yes, it is rather exhilarating. More close to home, people driving into town routinely speed on our street, which connects 599 to St. Francis. One lost control at speed and totalled my wife's car. Fortunately, she was not in it.

As Mr. Mello said, the risks from WIPP trucks having a mishap are minuscule by comparison.

Joe Brownrigg

They use Jaguar as a speed ramp, also, Khal. I've asked the SFPD several times to patrol this area, but they ignore it.

Stefanie Beninato

Thanks, Greg, for your factual presentation. Yes, we should all remember who sold our state out for plutonium production when it comes time to vote.

Joe Brownrigg

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Barry Rabkin

Secrecy is absolutely necessary when moving this material from point x to point y (or whatever number of points are involved). The "public should know" is secondary to the reality that there are psychopaths who would love to know about these movements of dangerous materials - letting the public know is equivalent to shooting ourselves in the head.

Khal Spencer

As usual, Mr. Mello cuts to the core issues while the New Mexican panders to the ill-informed and sensationalist local activists.

This project left me shaking my head in disbelief. The best way to get rid of weapons grade Plutonium is to burn it to death in a reactor and make carbon-free electricity. So much was spent in creating the Pu and now we just throw it away as trash. Sigh.

But....politics.

Joe Brownrigg

My head is STILL shaking, Khal!!

Greg Mello

It's easy to misunderstand this issue by looking at only a small part of it. This article is sort of like rubbing a small, partially clean spot in a large, dirty window. You can't see through it well. It's a start.

First and most obviously, Mr. McCarthy expresses surprise that our Democratic representatives haven't put a stop to this "convoluted, dangerous, idiotic (Trump Administration) plan." This is understandable. While all those adjectives do apply, actually it was senators Udall and Heinrich, and now-Senator Lujan, who led the way to make sure LANL would be the national center for all things plutonium. In 2017, the Trump Administration NNSA (which oversees LANL), at the time run by Obama appointee Frank Klotz, concluded that LANL's facilities were too old and too small to function as the nation's center for plutonium pit production -- and implicitly, for any plutonium production mission at scale. But the disposition issue slept. This had been the position of New Mexico senators Domenici and Bingaman also: LANL was a research facility, not a factory. But in 2017, the New Mexico delegation freaked out at the possibility that LANL could lose this potentially-huge mission set, worth billions -- the Russiagate nonsense played a large part as well -- and with Steve Pearce got a bipartisan amendment through to make sure LANL would be the center not just of the plutonium R&D universe for the U.S. but also the center of plutonium production, for weapons specifically. The mission discussed in this article -- the plutonium oxidation program -- was at LANL already but was small, and Congress hadn't paid much (really, any) attention to it. Neither had this newspaper. We sounded the alarm but it was unheeded.

Second, there is really very little risk to the public from nuclear materials transport, just as NNSA says here. The containers are quite robust. The problem is primarily visual blight. Nobody wants to be reminded that Santa Fe is becoming the center of all things plutonium for the United States, and an even greater world center for weapons of mass destruction than it already is. Secondarily, these convoys are sort of traveling zones of war, where normal constitutional protections are suspended and deadly force preauthorized. It's an ugly situation in all sorts of ways. Freaking out about it is quite right, but the issue is not spills or health, directly. That's a metaphor.

Third, the program itself is designed to be expensive, unnecessarily dangerous to workers, and it would use up a lot of space at WIPP. It feeds a hungry contractor community to the tune of an expected eventual $20 billion across the country, and this is tacitly understood by many parties in DC as a criterion of goodness. Simpler ways to adequately dispose of surplus plutonium exist, at WIPP and potentially elsewhere, and our own LANL director Thom Mason led a group that looked into some of them in his previous job. But there is little appetite, including among NM Democrats, for looking at things in new/old ways when so much money is to be made by slogging onward along the disposition path forged by Obama (not Trump). There was lots of interest in plutonium disposition back in the day when it was seen as a way to tie up Russian plutonium, but times have changed.

Fourth, this article and the activist concern cited is really only the periphery of the periphery. The core of the problem is the weapons production mission, which is in the process of re-tooling LANL as a processing and production site. The (unnecessary) plutonium processing rightly decried here is also the first step in producing more nuclear weapons. It is worse than useless to say one is opposed to pit production in general while supporting it at LANL, which Don and his Nuclear Watch project have done for many years.

Chris Mechels

An excellent analysis by Greg M, as usual. Yes, this project is stupid and wasteful, but no, its not dangerous, compared to the REAL issues with new nukes. Don't focus on this noise, but on the larger issue of reducing nuclear weapons.

Joe Brownrigg

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Joe Brownrigg

Extremely well-said, Greg!!! Thank you for the penetrating wisdom.

Bill Hill

This is ridiculous. These people need to be shut down. They need to figure out how to clean up their messes before they make anymore.

Joe Brownrigg

See Greg's response! They know "how," but they lack the ethical and financial WILL to do so.

Peter McCarthy

Hard to believe our Democratic Represntatives haven’t stopped this convoluted, dangerous, idiotic (Trump Administration) plan to make New Mexico the nuclear toilet for highly radioactive waste from around the whole country.

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