The decision to locate the WIPP underground nuclear waste disposal facility at Carlsbad was done not because it was the best place to store it from a scientific perspective, but because of political reasons. Carlsbad was selected after other communities rejected it, and city leaders lobbied for it to bring jobs and money. WIPP was sold as being safe by only storing low to mid-level radioactive waste from the nations nuclear weapons labs, things like contaminated gloves and rags. Just like things in ones garage, except they are contaminated with plutonium. As mentioned earlier it opened in 1999 and was scheduled to close in 2018, fifteen years sooner than scheduled. (1) With its imminent closing it means lots of jobs would be lost too. Already WIPP employs 25 percent of the city’s workforce. So city leaders are expanding their nuclear ambitions and chased another form of atomic pork, a proposed plutonium pit facility to make new nuclear bombs.
Carlsbad was one of 12 sites considered for the pit facility, with Los Alamos one of the 12. Officials estimated that 1,500 people could work at this facility when it opened in 2020, costing $4 billion to build. (2) The plant would make nuclear triggers, an euphemism for a plutonium bomb, a weapon of mass destruction and killing. The plutonium bomb is the core which would detonate a thermonuclear weapon, a hydrogen bomb. David Guiliani, managing editor of the Carlsbad newspaper, was quoted as saying “some people refer to it as a nuclear bomb factory. Frankly, that’s what it is.”(3)
Len Ackland, a professor of journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder and co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism, has long been a watchdog of nuclear issues. He was a former editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and author of “Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West (UNM Press, 2002 second edition). In 2003 he wrote an opinion piece for the Albuquerque Tribune arguing against the building of a new nuclear bomb factory, citing the experience of Rocky Flats in Colorado. (4)
Rocky Flats is located 16 miles from Denver, and operated from 1952 to 1989. It manufactured nuclear triggers and pits. It did this through a complex maze of pipes and tanks, turning plutonium into different states in order to make hollow bomb cores 7 to 9 pounds. Officially ended in 1992.
Through its existence Rocky Flats was shrouded in secrecy, and lack of scrutiny. An example of the hands off approach by journalists is given by Ackland, citing a 1952 Rocky Mountain News article: “The 41 million dollar Rocky Flats plant of the Atomic Energy Commission will start producing – whatever it will produce – shortly, after it is completed – whenever that is.” The article also had a photo of a guard shack with caption “There are also a couple of fences and a row of guards in between – care to investigate?” This lack of accountability led to tragic results. Nuclear weapon production took priority over health and safety for workers at the plant and the public.
Plutonium is a highly combustible material. Through its history Rocky Flats had hundreds of fires, including two major ones in 1957 and 1969. In 1969 a building that contained 7,000 pounds of plutonium caught fire and contaminated hundreds of square miles. In 1989 the FBI even raided the plant due to allegations of illegally handling its waste. Rockwell, the contractor at the time, was found guilty and paid $18.5 million in fines. Rocky Flats closed down after the fall of the Soviet Union, and millions were spent on cleanup, and now sits as a wildlife preserve. Over 2,000 former workers at Rocky Flats have filed for compensation for illnesses contracted due to radiation and other hazardous material exposures from nuclear weapons manufacture, with few receiving compensation.
By the end of 2002 there were more than 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with more than 10,000 owned by the United States. These were a legacy of the Cold War, and with the end of that conflict with the Soviet Union it was thought the Nuclear Weapons Age would end too. But it did not. With the War on Terror the Bush administration created new policies on nuclear weapons, including plans for Rocky Flats II. The new pit facility was to continue the age of Nuclear Weapons, disregarding the lessons of Rocky Flats.
We will examine the Bush adminstration nuclear weapons policies in the future at this blog.
1. “Courting the Bomb.” High Country News. http://www.hcn.org/issues/257/14192
2. “Carlsbad’s WIPP on list to build nuclear triggers.” September 21, 2002. http://lubbockonline.com/stories/092102/reg_0921020151.shtml
3. Fialka, John J. “Carlsbad Is Ready for Second Nuclear Site.” Wall Street Journal. May 20, 2003. http://nucnews.com/news2003/carlsbad.htm
4. Ackland, Len. “Deadly Silence on Nukes.” Albuquerque Tribune. June 25, 2003. Pg. C1.