The N.M. 4 and East Jemez Road intersection in the far northwestern corner of Santa Fe County will be improved as part of a $15.5 million upgrade of routes on which Los Alamos National Laboratory transports nuclear waste to an underground disposal site in Southern New Mexico.

The U.S. Energy Department will spend $3.5 million to improve the intersection, which lies just outside Los Alamos County, and another $12 million to upgrade routes it owns and uses mostly to ship transuranic waste — contaminated gloves, clothing, equipment, soil and other items — to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

The project, planned for the spring, is part of a 2016 agreement the federal agency made with the state in lieu of penalties for a ruptured waste container causing extensive radioactive contamination at WIPP two years earlier.

A container packaged in a volatile blend of organic cat litter and nitrate salts burst in an underground chamber in 2014. WIPP was shut down for three years, and the contamination cost $2 billion to clean up.

Lab and nuclear security officials have indicated road improvements will be needed for shipping higher volumes of waste generated when the lab produces plutonium cores — or pits — used to trigger nuclear warheads.

A spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, an Energy Department branch, wrote in an email the upgrades will serve the lab and commuters.

“The planned improvements to the intersection will help facilitate the flow of all traffic that uses this intersection, including vehicles transporting waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory,” agency spokeswoman Kate Hewitt wrote. “As [for] the WIPP transportation route, it allows us to ship transuranic waste from LANL to WIPP and accommodates thousands of commuters each day.”

The work will add lanes and safety features that will enhance the daily traffic flow through the intersection, both going west to the lab and south to White Rock, Hewitt wrote.

The project also will aid the National Park Service in creating a new parking area at Bandelier National Monument’s Tsankawi site east of the intersection, the nuclear agency said in a news release.

A watchdog group criticized the agreement that created the project, saying it allowed the Energy Department to sidestep real penalties.

“Essentially blessing what DOE was going to have to do anyway in order to expand nuclear weapons activities and waste disposal,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “And once again demonstrated the subservience of our state government to the nuclear weapons industry here in New Mexico.”

This settlement was made under former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

Martinez sought to relax regulatory oversight as much as possible on the lab, Coghlan said.

Coghlan said the road improvements are a precursor not only to the lab producing pits but also converting as much as 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium into an oxide powder.

The Energy Department issued a notice of intent a year ago to begin work on an environmental impact statement as one of the first steps toward diluting and disposing of the plutonium left from the Cold War.

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

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

This plutonium would be sent to the lab, where it would be turned into oxide powder through the lab’s ARIES program, which was created in the early 2000s to help make the substance unusable for nuclear weapons.

The powder would be shipped to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where it would be diluted before returning to New Mexico for disposal at WIPP.

That would mean a more hazardous substance than transuranic waste 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.

At an online forum Wednesday, lab Director Thom Mason confirmed the lab is the only place in the country where plutonium can be turned into oxide powder.

Coghlan said the waste-transport routes will get heavier use in the coming years, so it’s no surprise that federal agencies want to improve the roads.

“It’s all related to plutonium pit production and plutonium waste, both coming and going,” he said.

(8) comments

Alan Courtney

If you drive the proposed routes, there are vehicle intersections, pedestrian crosswalks, railroad crossings, etc., etc., everyone of which poses a possible point of collision with one of these big rigs. Where are the mitigation efforts for the entire route? Where are the contingency plans in case of an accident? Which way do we run if there is one?

Michael Grimler

"...Where are the mitigation efforts for the entire route? Where are the contingency plans in case of an accident? Which way do we run if there is one?"

Mr. Courtney, those questions, and others, were asked and answered long before the first shipment to WIPP was made in March 1999.

Thomas Harris

Some of those commenting are analogous to people who move close to an airport and then complain about the noise. (Or, a local example: the woman who moved into a house close to the stables in Los Alamos and wanted them moved because she didn't like the smell.) The Laboratory has been around for more than 50 years, likely much longer than those concerned about the prospects of a highly unlikely release of nuclear material have lived in the area. Going back to the airport analogy, you are more likely to have a plane fall out of the sky than a catastrophic release of nuclear material that poses imminent harm to health and safety.

Given that the Laboratory's mission is unlikely to change in the near future based on comments from those unhappy with its presence in northern New Mexico, doesn't it make sense to improve the roads so they are safer for everyone? Those concerned about the risks posed by transport of hazardous materials ought to take a drive on I-40 sometime and think about the percentage of 18-wheelers (which far outnumber passenger vehicles) transporting hazardous materials in an unsafe manner.

Khal Spencer

[thumbup] What Thomas said.

Also, I really doubt the WIPP trucks will be scheduled for Rush Hour, which is when the roads are far more dangerous due to the risk-taking behavior of people commuting on and off the hill. Now if someone wants to worry about risk, try thinking about the people headed up and down 502 and 84/285 while drinking coffee, putting on makeup, texting d**k pics to their girlfriend, and doing 25 over the speed limit. If something is gonna get you, it will be the local kamikaze motorists.

Wendy Marcus

I live in Los Alamos. When I first came here I was worried about exposure to toxic chemicals and nuclear waste. I then thought, the people who know the most about this stuff in the world live in Los Alamos with their families. You all need to stop you hand writing about this.

We have had 2 wildfire evacuations here. The state of that intersection has hindered the evacuation process. The intersection also causes huge back ups during commute times. The sight lines are so bad, I have 2 friends who have gotten in accidents there. The road upgrade is necessary for far more than moving waste.

Cynthia Weehler

One other thought: the processing of the pure plutonium mentioned in this story doesn't change the amount of radioactivity in the waste; it merely dilutes it, or disperses it through more material so that each unit of waste contains less ionizing radiation. The overall amount of radiation is the same. Each "package" has less radiation because it has been combined with non-radioactive material. The result is simply more overall waste, which is why DOE wants to increase the size of WIPP by more than twice and keep it open for the rest of the century.

Cynthia Weehler

Scott Wyland, as usual, has written a concise and easily understood story. Everyone on the route should be concerned and watch this closely. It ain't your Daddy's WIPP anymore. Between the waste it is authorized to accept, the 48 tonnes of surplus plutonium triggers the Department of Energy wants to transport TWICE on this designated route, and the new waste that will be generated by plutonium pit production, these roads will become an endless industrial trucking nightmare. The waste stream from pits and the surplus plutonium aren't even authorized in WIPP. DOE is railroading us.

Dee Finney

What is the emergency preparedness plan when an accident occurs. There is no plan in place and we are all living in the most dangerous place in the country for deadly exposure to radioactive poisoning. Northern NM is not the place for this plan of transporting 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium into an oxide powder.

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