RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Now to a desert moonscape in New Mexico. If you drill down far enough in a region down towards the Texas border, eventually you hit pure salt. For 11 years, the federal government has been burying nuclear waste there, left over from making atomic bombs. Now the government is looking for a place to put thousands of tons of spent fuel from reactors. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports in the first of two stories on nuclear waste, some people in New Mexico say we'll take it.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: You'll find Bob Forrest at the Steven's Hotel in the faraway desert town of Carlsbad, New Mexico, sipping an iced tea in the restaurant. He owns the hotel, and he was mayor twice. Say the word salt, and he grins.
Mr. BOB FORREST: The biggest asset we have are those salt beds out here, east of town. Been there for 250 million years, and they've just proven perfect to put this kind of waste and to store it permanently, and that's the key to our success.
JOYCE: The success he means is WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant run by the U.S. Department of Energy. It's the nation's only permanent geological nuclear waste dump. It costs about $235 million a year to run WIPP, and a lot of that comes here to Carlsbad. That also means jobs, about 1,400 of them, from mining engineers to safety officers.
Unidentified Man: For your personal safety, you must comply with all posted safety, security and informational signs, as well as...
JOYCE: It's about a 26-mile ride to get to WIPP, plenty of time to watch the mandatory DOE video. There's a big fence around WIPP, of course. One inside, it's a collection of big, metal buildings and tall, steel structures that lower and raise miners, equipment and salt through vertical shafts.
First, you suit up, a leather belt with emergency air breather, a hard hat with a miner's lamp, and a matchbox-sized radiation monitor. Then, it's into a four-by-four-foot cage for a trip down into the mine with chief scientist Roger Nelson.
Yeah. So you're right about being in tight quarters.
Mr. ROGER NELSON (Chief Scientist, WIPP): Oh, it's not bad. We all took showers this morning.
Mr. NELSON: First time under?
JOYCE: In a salt mine, yes.
Mr. NELSON: We're going to underground at about 800 feet a minute. So it's about a three minute trip to get there.
JOYCE: What we're plummeting down almost half a mile to see are caverns mined out of the salt beds. This is a good place for waste because the beds are dry -there's no groundwater in them, although there's some water trapped inside individual crystals. Studies suggest that's not enough water to move the waste outside the salt bed. Nelson points out that what does move here are the walls and the floors.
Mr. NELSON: Salt at very high pressures, half a mile underground, behaves different than salt at the surface. Salt moves like a viscous plastic or like cold molasses.
JOYCE: Over the next few decades, these caverns will slowly close up, like a healing wound.
(Soundbite of rattling)
Mr. NELSON: The floor's wet. Be careful. Watch your step.
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JOYCE: We climb into an electric cart. The tunnels are tall and wide, and a sort of mottled off-white. Roof bolts and wire netting keep them secure. The wheels of the cart crunch over loose salt.
(Soundbite of electric cart)
Mr. NELSON: Pull that green cord for me. Now we're going to through this air-lock.
JOYCE: Giant doors are air-locks that separate the dim rooms and tunnels to control the flow of air through the mine.
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JOYCE: What's buried here is mostly plutonium waste - left over from making nuclear weapons - glove boxes and gloves, some dirt, tools, solid chemicals. It's trucked here from government sites around the country and stacked in cul-de-sacs in these caverns.
Mr. NELSON: These are just normal 55-gallon drums, those green ones there in the foreground.
JOYCE: Nelson says if you stood next to one of these drums for five hours, you'd probably get about as much radiation as you would in a chest X-ray. There is also a more radioactive class of military waste here. It's buried inside the walls, secured with concrete plugs like corks in a wine bottle.
Once the repository is filled, in about six years, nature will take its course, and the caverns will finally collapse.
Mr. NELSON: All of the containers will slowly crush. And then the salt will continue to fill in until it's basically an encapsulated layer about 10 feet thick with a thousand feet of salt above it and another thousand feet of rock above that, and several thousand feet of salt below it.
(Soundbite of rattling)
JOYCE: So far, eight and a half thousand waste shipments have been trucked into WIPP and buried without serious incident. The state Environment Department says WIPP's safety record is good. And that's kept WIPP out of the newspapers.
But not any more. That's because the federal government needs a place to dump thousands of tons of its most highly radioactive waste - spent fuel from reactors - someplace safe for tens of thousands of years. It was supposed to go into Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but that project has been canceled.
Former Carlsbad mayor, Bob Forrest, says why not WIPP?
Mr. FORREST: It's just a no-brainer. And why would DOE ever walk away from the most successful project they've got? I mean, they don't have a hell of a lot of great stories to tell, but this is the number one.
JOYCE: President Obama has appointed a panel of experts to look for a high-level waste dump for spent fuel, and the salt beds are expected to be on its list.
But despite Bob Forrest's enthusiasm, there are also plenty of people here who say, no thanks, we've done enough.
Tomorrow, I'll report on the divide over nuclear waste in New Mexico.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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