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My View: A nuclear waste wake-up call?

By Demis Foster| MyView | The Santa Fe New Mexican
A menacing, radioactive giant is sleeping in southeastern New Mexico. Will the next election be its wake-up call?
In the desert outside Carlsbad, the U.S. Department of Energy is disposing of radioactive waste in large rooms carved out of salt beds almost half a mile underground. For the past 14 years, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) has, for the most part, quietly done its job — disposing of the radioactive waste created from the Cold War nuclear weapons program.

But WIPP’s history hasn’t always been so uneventful. It took 30 years to open. Those three decades were marked by protests, lawsuits and numerous negotiations between the state and federal governments. New Mexico agreed to host the WIPP facility only after strict parameters were placed on the type of waste it would receive and after state regulators were guaranteed a strong role in its oversight.
Now, a variety of efforts are underway to expand the mission of WIPP to receive other, potentially more dangerous, forms of waste — such as radioactive tank sludge from Hanford, Wash., and commercially generated high-level radioactive waste long earmarked for disposal at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. That imminent sound you hear is the federal government trying to quietly crack open the door to allow new and more dangerous types of waste into WIPP. This wasn’t what the state was promised when New Mexico agreed to host this facility. We should not allow the DOE to break those promises now.
WIPP is the nation’s only operational repository for radioactive waste. It’s the only drain in the bathtub, so to speak. And like a drain, there is tremendous and growing pressure to ram more and more types of radioactive waste into WIPP, despite the legal and technical requirements for disposal at the repository and the assurances that allowed the site to open in the first place.
WIPP was never designed to accept the high-level radioactive sludge that the DOE is again attempting to ship here. Nor have the people of New Mexico been consulted about an expanded mission for this facility (or an identical one next door) that could potentially include storage and disposal of high-level, radioactive spent nuclear fuel from the country’s private, for-profit nuclear power industry.
The stakes here are very high, and the people of New Mexico deserve consultation on these issues before the DOE quietly tries to change the rules of the game. We are dealing with waste that will remain deadly for at least 24,000 years, if not much longer. Therefore, the citizens of the host state deserve to have their opinions heard before having to live with something that will impact them and the next 1,200 generations to follow.
We know our state needs jobs, but we can create them without forfeiting our clean air and water and the health of our families.
State leaders, from former Sen. Jeff Bingaman to current Sen. Tom Udall and former Gov. Bill Richardson, have repeatedly stood up to the federal government to keep its promise and not turn the WIPP into something it was never designed to be. Where does Gov. Susana Martinez stand? Is she going to allow the federal government to break the promises it has made to the people of New Mexico?
The answers to these questions could have a big impact on this sleeping giant of an issue in the 2014 election and beyond. Decisions we make now will impact our state for thousands of years to come. Once informed on these issues, New Mexicans will not allow our state to turn into the nation’s de facto nuclear dumping ground.
Demis Foster is the executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico which works to make sensible conservation a top priority for elected officials, political candidates and voters.