An article in the New York Times by Katherine Seelye, republished in the local Albuquerque Tribune, talks about the radioactive contamination of Johnson Atoll, and the possibility of shipping the contaminants to WIPP. Johnson Atoll was previously used for nuclear testing.
Johnson Atoll is made up of four islands in the South Pacific, 825 miles southwest of Honolulu. The 690 acre atoll was used by the Air Force in the 1950‘s and 1960‘s for 12 test launchings of nuclear missiles. In 1962 two of the launchings were aborted and exploded over the runway they built, covering the area with radioactive contaminants. The military also used the atoll to incinerate nerve gas and chemical weapons until the year 2000.
Johnson Atoll was also designated a wildlife refuge in 1926. It is a nesting ground for green sea turtles, a habitat for 300 species of fish, and an essential resting ground for 20 species of migratory birds. The Department of Defense transferred authority of the atoll to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2004.
Before they left the Air Force buried thousands of cubic meters of plutonium-contaminated waste in a 25 acre landfill on the atoll itself. The Fish and Wildlife Service was concerned about this, as was the Earth Foundation. They saw the waste storage as unstable, due to the nature of the atoll, which was expanded to 10 times its original size to accommodate a launch pad, and during hurricanes the atoll can be completely submerged. The contaminants can be absorbed by fish and carried by currents. The FWS wants the contaminants shipped to another depository such as WIPP, which was designed “to contain plutonium-contaminated wastes produced and stored in steel drums at the nation’s nuclear weapons research and production facilities, including Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories.” Previously contaminated structures were sent to the Nevada Test Site for burial in the 1980‘s. No matter what its original purpose sites like WIPP will always have their mission expanded, such as a place to build new nuclear pits.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency rejected the idea of shipping the waste to the U.S. mainland, saying it would be too costly. It was estimated that it would cost $55 million to move the waste from where it was, where the military only spent $1.5 million on the island landfill. First time I know a government agency put cost concerns first.
The article also mentions DTRA geologist Harry Stumpf, also program manager for the Johnson project, giving reassurances. Stumpf stated “The levels of plutonium and radioactivity are so low as to present no significant risk to humans, wildlife or plant life.” He further states that there is no concern about leaks, for plutonium is denser than lead and would just sink in the water. Thus the cost to remove it is too high because the risk is so low. Somehow it is not reassuring. Nonetheless the military did cap the landfill and compacted it with extra soil so birds would not be harmed by the contaminants if they burrowed in the sand.
The nuclear legacy is a large one, Johnson Atoll one of many. And most of the time, such as this one, they come back to New Mexico, whether they were developed here or ultimately stored here.
Seelye, Katherine Q. “Will WIPP Help Wildlife?” Albuquerque Tribune. February 6, 2003. Pg. C1. also at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/27/politics/27ATOL.html