A panel of state lawmakers expressed concerns Friday about plans to truck plutonium shipments through New Mexico, including Santa Fe’s southern edge, and will send letters to state and federal officials asking for more information on the transports.

Two opponents of the shipments — a Santa Fe County commissioner and a local activist — presented the Department of Energy’s basic plan to the Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, provoking a mixture of surprise and curiosity from members.

Several lawmakers agreed transporting plutonium is more hazardous because it is far more radioactive than the transuranic waste — contaminated gloves, equipment, clothing, soil and other materials — that Los Alamos National Laboratory now ships to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground disposal site near Carlsbad.

County Commissioner Anna Hansen told the committee the shipments would travel through a dozen states and cover 3,000 miles — and they would go through Santa Fe twice in different forms.

“This is truly quite concerning,” said state Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe. “It’s obvious we need a plan — we need safety planning here. A better strategy for this whole transportation issue.”

The Energy Department 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 over 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 low-intensity nuclear waste.

The agency has said little overall about its plans, despite the potential hazards, said Cindy Weehler, who co-chairs the watchdog group 285 ALL.

Most of the information has come from the National Academy of Sciences, which describes how surplus plutonium would be transported, reconstituted and disposed of at WIPP in its 2020 analysis, she said.

The agency’s lack of transparency about the transports could imperil communities more because they’ll be unaware and unprepared, Weehler said.

“We’ve learned that fire departments aren’t even aware of most of the new risks they’ll be handling,” Weehler said. “The DOE needs to make this public. It’s becoming incumbent upon us citizens to make this public.”

State Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, agreed that the agency should be more forthcoming and suggested the committee send letters to the Governor’s Office and federal nuclear managers asking that they dig into the matter and get answers.Committee members voted in favor of the letters.

A big concern would be the 26 metric tons of cast-off plutonium bomb cores, or pits, that are being kept at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, Hansen said.

This plutonium would be sent to Los Alamos, 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, according to the academy’s report.

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, Hansen said.

“This a dangerous way to be transporting nuclear weapons-grade plutonium,” Hansen 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 a truck accident could still endanger some neighborhoods, especially one carrying the plutonium powder, which won’t be in heavy duty containers and is more likely to be released. The powder is toxic to breathe — the fine grains can embed in the lungs, causing respiratory problems — and can contaminate soil so extensively it’s impossible to purge, she said.

Steinborn said the committee by law is charged with overseeing the public safety and welfare of residents, and to do that it requires agencies to be cooperative and transparent.

“These issues do represent fundamental exposure to citizens of the state,” Steinborn said. “And citizens have a right to know.”

(22) comments

Maria Thomas

Thanks for bringing attention to this matter. We need more open discussion so that neighborhoods and towns possibly affected by an accident will at least know what's possible

Dennis McQuillan

LANL was involved with at least 23 human radiation experiments and some tests were performed on children. But these tests were not always done with informed consent. LANL prepared plutonium, for example, that was injected into unwitting people in other states. Human excreta from the test subjects was then delivered to LANL for analysis. See the 1986 Congressional Report, "American Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments on U.S. Citizens."

I fail to see how these human radiation experiments, some of which were highly unethical, would provide people who live along the plutonium transportation routes with any assurance of safety. Plutonium is very dangerous when inhaled, and this is the most likely exposure pathway for a transportation accident or terrorist attack. Plutonium also was released to the atmosphere during the 2014 accident at WIPP.


Cynthia Weehler

This story, which you give a source for -thank you, Dennis- should make everyone respond with more concern when government entities create secret programs, not less. For those who have decided that it is uninformed to worry about this issue, I suggest you let the rest of us reasonably work to make this project more transparent, safer, and fairer, while you productively relax. It's ok, we have this.

Chris Mechels

Plenty of ink spilled over this, but I believe the premise is wrong. Plutonium in not particularly radioactive. Spent reactor fuel is extremely radioactive. Google it....

At various times LANL scientists have offered to ingest plutonium, which will simply pass though your system. It is dangerous if airborne, and enters your lungs, as its an alpha emitter.

Its fine to worry, but how about informed worry?? Its more productive.

Cynthia Weehler

Plutonium is highly radioactive, Chris. It is not as IMMEDIATELY radioactive as spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors (the caps is meant to indicate emphasis, not yelling). But it is long term as dangerous. We both seem to agree that it is most dangerous in a form that is inhaled, which doesn't mean it's safe in other forms. And it's being transported in a form that is able to be inhaled. You need to decide what is risky to you and I need to decide what is risky to me. The DOE's secretive behavior denies us the ability to decide, while forcing us to take the risk.

Cristine Marchand

The public in all 12 states where plutonium will be transported have a right to know. The route in New Mexico also impacts pueblos, farms and ranches. Thank you for bringing this issue to the public domaine; and thank you to legislators for requesting more (much more) information from state and federal officials.

Mark Stair

This situation is being treated by D.O.E, et al., as a near 'covert( under-the-radar) operation' w/o appropriate public education as to its complexity, horrific consequences (immediate/ VERY long term)...of (not 'if' but) 'when' an accident happens. The idea of powdered plutonium 'containment' is ludicrous. The 'double-back'/ over-road routes is a 'Rube Goldberg' fiasco! Read 'Manual For Survival', Kate Brown's expose of the Chernobyl cover-ups (plural 'n this situ is reminiscent!) for gov't 'blueprint' of public (non-)disclosure! MSNBC has a special this Sunday (11/14, 8p) of a Ca lab 'accident that still is 'carcinogenic' in Semi Valley.

Cynthia Weehler

Good points, Mark.

Elizabeth Romero

Trsnsporting highly poisonous radioactive powder thousands of miles through a dozen states is insane. We are all human and prone to mistakes. Every mile increases the certainty that something will go wrong. The lack of transparency tells me the DOE knows this is a terrible idea. They didn't keep their word about the mission and timeline for WIPP, so why should we believe their assurances about the safety of this new project?

Dennis McQuillan

As the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report points out, the proposed disposal of 48.2 metric tons of diluted plutonium substantially changes the mission of WIPP. Safety issues that were incompletely or incorrectly addressed when WIPP first opened, such as the potential for oil and gas industry intrusions in the repository, must be thoroughly and objectively reanalyzed before any further permits or authorizations are issued. Potential transportation risks include not only accidents, but also terrorist attacks to steal or maliciously disperse the plutonium. Also, as the NAS discusses, this change in WIPP mission significantly changes the WIPP "social contract" with the State of New Mexico. Our elected officials and regulatory agencies must ensure that all WIPP safety issues are properly addressed and enforceable in a revised social contract.


Dee Finney

What is the emergency plan when an accident occurs and we are all exposed. This issue is very critical and we all need to educate ourselves on what is being planned. Currently the plan is to transport this highly radioactive waste through our communities not once but twice!!!

Cynthia Weehler

Dee, it is indeed alarming. DOE needs to speak publicly at a forum where we can ask questions and make comments.

Khal Spencer

I'd be far more appreciative if these elected officials put more of their time and effort into combating drugged, drunk, distracted, reckless, and clueless driving. Such as the motorist who almost hit me yesterday while failing to yield at a stop sign. Instead, they are worried about extremely low probability events and those trucks are built like brick outhouses.

Plenty written about this "fear of the rare" phenomena. One example here.


Master’s thesis, filed to obtain a Master’s degree in Psychology, specialization:

theoretical and experimental psychology

Sara-Lise Busschaert


Thomas Harris

Ditto! If only we could get such passionate activism in regard to traffic safety. To the best of my knowledge, there has not yet been a breech of containment of one of the containers used to transport radioactive materials.

Conversely, we are put at risk each and every day by the highway anarchists who believe speed limits and red lights do not apply to them. Try driving the speed limit on St. Francis Drive between St. Michaels and I-25; you will suffer the wrath of the many that drive that stretch at 55-60 mph (or faster). If you do not look and wait for those running red lights before proceeding when a light turns green (check out any intersection any day any time) you will be hit. And I haven't even started on distracted/drunk driving! Yesterday I observed an individual with a highlighter between his lips, a pen in his hand, a pad of paper braced on the steering wheel while doing about 50 mph on St. Francis. The good thing is that if one of these idiots should hit a truck carrying transuranic materials they will take themselves out and there will be little to no damage to the truck and no breech of containment of its cargo.

Khal Spencer


Cynthia Weehler

Khal, some people will feel this transport is too risky; some won't. The point is we have the right to know about the risks we're being exposed to so we can make our own decision; DOE's secrecy is denying us that ability, while forcing us to take the risk.

Khal Spencer

Dennis McQuillan said it as well as it can be said. We do need to examine the revised mission and any concerns this raises. That said, I still say the risks a citizen faces from these shipments is minor to miniscule compared to other everyday risks that our pols seem to gloss over.

And for the record, I think this disposal of tons of surplus Pu is an abomination. I would have preferred that we go ahead with the MOX plan.

Cynthia Weehler

Khal, DOE abandoned the plan to recycle the waste into MOX fuel after 8 years and $8 billion tax-payer dollars because it was too expensive and not feasible (their words, not mine). Rethink that preference.

Khal Spencer

It was political.

Cynthia Weehler

I just wrote that it was not political. What would be the political reason to stop the program? I felt you were using solid reasoning until that statement, which was nothing more than reactionary.

Khal Spencer

It is obviously feasible to fabricate and fuel a reactor with MOX fuel since MOX fuel has been fabricated and burned elsewhere, such as in Europe. And its a dang good way to get rid of weapons grade plutonium. So the decision to kill the program was to me, political, based on the government's balance of various cost-benefit issues.

Some background.


Maria Bautista

Brought to you by Tom Udall, Martin Heinrich, Ben Ray and Fernandez. There is a huge push to build apts. Not for Santa Fe, but for 5,000 federal employees and their families. Ben Ray took Udall's seat and he told Webber to build. At this moment the construction has started, construction guys are not safety trained to work in radioactive areas. Already there have been minor accidents. Udall and Heinrich met with Trump, and asked LANL to be involved. LANL gets the dirty work, then shipped to Carolina for assembly, " the clean work".....accidents will happen!

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