January 31, 2023

Local Karlovy Vary leaders expressed their support for a controversial federal government plan to use a repository near the city to dispose of excess weapons-grade plutonium that could otherwise be used to make nuclear bombs.

The comments came during a public hearing held Tuesday in Carlsbad by the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) on its proposed program to dilute and dispose of 34 tonnes (MT) of excess plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

Much of the waste, consisting of plutonium mines and other materials used in the development of nuclear warheads, was dumped at the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas after it was deemed in 1994 to be in excess of federal defense needs.

More:Diluted plutonium being disposed of at the Carlsbad nuclear waste site as the program sparks controversy

Under the DOE’s proposal, the waste would be shipped to Los Alamos National Laboratory for processing and then to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina for packaging before finally being shipped to WIPP for disposal.

At this point the waste would meet WIPP requirements for disposal as transuranic waste (TRU) which the site is permitted to dispose of.

It would also mean that the garbage would traverse New Mexico three times, a sticking point for opponents of the project who argued it would put New Mexicans at increased risk along the transportation routes.

More:Feds ramp up shipments of nuclear waste to New Mexico repository, led by waste from other states

Public comments on the proposal were being accepted through February 14, with a final decision expected by the end of the year.

The hearing was the second of four, with a previous meeting being held Jan. 19 in South Carolina, one scheduled Thursday in Los Alamos, and another taking place virtually Jan. 30.

Carlsbad resident Mary Landreth argued that eastern New Mexico has been at disproportionate risk of nuclear exposure from ongoing WIPP operations since the plant began accepting waste in 1999.

More:New Mexico nuclear waste project rejected in latest poll, company pledges local support

The region is also home to other nuclear facilities – the URENCO National Enrichment Facility in Eunice and the Waste Control Specialists site in Andrews, Texas.

The US’s first nuclear weapons were tested at the Trinity site near Carrizozo, and Holtec International proposed building a site near Hobbs to store spent nuclear fuel from reactors across the country.

Landreth said she thinks Pantex should be safer and the waste stored there until another repository is available, even though WIPP is currently the US’s only deep geological repository capable of disposing of nuclear waste.

More:Feds push plan to dispose of plutonium at nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad

“I don’t want eastern New Mexico to become a nuclear waste site,” Landreth said. “There is no nuclear power plant in New Mexico. Why do we take other people’s trash? I think the best solution would be to increase the security of the warehouse at Pantex.”

A number of local leaders from Karlovy Vary spoke out in support of the project, representing the city’s government and business community and reaffirming the security of the WIPP project and DOE operations in the region.

Carlsbad Mayor Pro-tem Edward Rodriguez said WIPP staff and officials live in the city and would not propose anything that would endanger their community.

More:New Mexico’s nuclear history is celebrated in the national stamp collection, despite the repercussions

He pointed to a recent draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) released by the NNSA, which claimed the proposal was safe to implement and logistically and financially ideal for disposing of the plutonium.

“WIPP is an excellent neighbor. They are good citizens, they do many good services to the community. These are people we know. We in Carlsbad don’t want anything that puts anyone in Carlsbad at risk,” Rodriguez said.

“The studies were very thorough; They were direct and transparent. I fully support the project.”

More:New Mexico is seeking nuclear waste permitting contributions for a repository near Carlsbad

Karlovy Vary City Councilor JJ Chavez, members of the Karlovy Vary Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force and the local Chamber of Commerce also expressed their support.

Task Force Chair Jack Volpato said a similar process is already in use to dispose of diluted plutonium from the Savannah River site and can continue to be safely conducted under the proposal.

The first shipment of this waste recently arrived at WIPP for disposal and was sent directly from South Carolina to the repository after downblending.

More:Air projects at nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad move forward after delays

“It’s the safe way to do things. This alternative is nothing new. We’ve diluted and disposed of plutonium in the past, and this is just an extension of that project,” Volpato said. “It is also a patriotic duty for our community to help solve the problem of excess plutonium.”

Carlsbad Department of Development board member Mark Schinnerer said the proposal offers a viable solution to excess plutonium held by the federal government, emphasizing Carlsbad’s role in the solution.

“A lot of people want to kick the can out onto the street. That’s not Karlsbad,” said Schinnerer. “We understand risks. At some point someone has to say, we take the risk, we take the project to solve this problem.”

However, Lorraine Villegas of Hobbs, who lives about 60 miles from the WIPP site, said the risks were too great considering the traffic hazards the waste shipments would face en route to the repository.

“I drive these roads every day, I’ve seen accidents you don’t want to see,” she said. “I’m not comfortable with so much material being transported on these roads.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *