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Trivializing the danger, shifting the blame

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WIPP was never going to solve America’s nuclear waste problem. We have too much waste and too many kinds of waste to put into this one facility, New Mexico’s long-controversial Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. And even if you somehow believe geologic disposal is a great idea, there just aren’t enough locations with a prayer of sequestering the nasty stuff from the biosphere (or future human intrusion) to build dozens more WIPPs. Not to mention the trillions it would cost.
But if WIPP’s real purpose was to create the illusion that we’d found a solution — so we could keep on making more nuclear weapons and waste — then it has done a pretty good job of that, at least until this year’s accidents and on-going release.
Public relations has always been a big part of the WIPP story. Now it’s driving official Department of Energy responses to the recent events. Yup, they’re at it again.
Remember when they told us decades ago the WIPP waste consisted of “gloves and booties” — an image calculated to allay public fears and distract us from, ahem, plutonium? Now they’re ceaselessly invoking organic “kitty litter” for causing the explosion that contaminated the underground facility, exposed at least 21 workers, and blew a cloud of americium and plutonium up the shaft and out into the world…something that was never supposed to happen.
So, why the cute misnomer for industrial absorbents? This is no household hygiene moment or YouTube cat video. This accident wasn’t caused by “kitty litter.”
Manipulating the public again with cutesy language is an attempt to downplay the very tangible dangers this facility will pose to life and resources for the next quarter of a million years.
Simultaneously, we see a desperate attempt to shift the blame elsewhere, anywhere. WIPP consultant Jim Conca, who got his 15 minutes of fame promoting the term “kitty litter,” also said WIPP has performed perfectly and the whole mess was caused by contractors at the generator sites that ship to WIPP. We now know the explosive shipment came from Los Alamos National Laboratory, though it might just as easily been from Idaho or South Carolina weapons sites.
Nonetheless, the accident is absolutely WIPP’s fault. Why? Because WIPP management has tirelessly petitioned the New Mexico Environment Department for dozens of modifications to the original operating permit. It goes without saying that they haven’t been begging for more stringent regulation. All the requests have been to weaken the terms of the permit, including protections we were promised for decades.
Notably, persuading the Environment Department that it would be safe to stop doing the previously required headspace-gas sampling of the barrels (aimed primarily at preventing explosions) now looks like it was a very bad idea indeed.
The barrels have plenty of organic materials — not just the added absorbent currently being blamed — mixed with the hazardous chemicals and radioactive debris, decaying at unpredictable rates. The fact is, WIPP waste has always been at risk of exploding, whether on the highway, during waste handling or after disposal. This was one of the specters that generated so much furious controversy among scientists and the public from the moment WIPP was first proposed. Additionally, recall that poor record keeping at DOE weapons sites during frenzied Cold War bomb-building meant that wastes were inconsistently documented. Waste characterization and sampling were thus issues of grave concern when WIPP was being debated 25 years ago. Clearly, they are once again. The state permit should never have been modified in such dangerous ways.
Unsurprisingly, Los Alamos shipped their easily analyzed wastes to WIPP first, saving the “mystery” wastes for later, when regulations were relaxed and the safety and security protocols at WIPP had slipped into routine. The 2004 dismantlement of the Environmental Evaluation Group, WIPP’s only truly independent oversight, and the permit modifications that all but ended barrel sampling, meant accidental release became almost inevitable.
We’re also hearing a lot of desperate PR about re-opening the facility as soon as possible. Really? First, how about an independent investigation to conclude definitively what caused the accidents and releases, and how much exposure workers and area residents might encounter in the future? WIPP’s boosters —including the folks who want to get back to work right away — need to stop and think about a bigger picture: one with national, international and essentially permanent consequences. This isn’t about your job; this isn’t about public relations. This is about materials that will still have the power to taint land, air and water, and to poison and kill living things, for tens of thousands of years. All the baby talk WIPP’s PR office can dream up can’t alter that essential, deadly serious, fact.
Call your elected officials today and ask for an independent investigation of the WIPP radiation release.

Sasha Pyle and Joni Arends are longtime nuclear weapons and waste activists in Northern New Mexico with Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a national coalition of citizen groups. Sasha was also a founding member of Nuclear Watch New Mexico and has produced many of its publications.