A Livelihood in Nuclear Waste, Under Threat
By DAN FROSCHMARCH 20, 2014
Rick Fuentes, a handler at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, is president of the union chapter that represents the plant workers. Credit Mark Holm for The New York Times
CARLSBAD, N.M. — For 15 years, workers from this dusty New Mexico town have made the 26-mile drive down a series of worn two-lane highways until reaching a strange complex of alabaster buildings in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert.
These days, though, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only permanent underground repository for nuclear weapons waste, is closed. The plant has been shut down ever since a mysterious leak exposed 17 employees to radiation on Feb. 14.
So far, the workers have tested positive for extremely low levels of radiation, not enough to cause adverse health effects, according to officials at the federal Energy Department, which oversees the plant. But in Carlsbad — a blue-collar community of about 27,000 along the Pecos River that has long taken pride in its handling of the nation’s Cold War waste — concerns about contamination have given way to fears that the facility will not reopen anytime soon.
“People keep asking, ‘When do you think they’ll let us be back at work?’ ” said Rick Fuentes, a former Carlsbad policeman who spent a decade working in the nearby potash mines before becoming a waste handler at the plant.
The plant has been closed since a leak last month exposed workers to radiation. Credit Mark Holm for The New York Times
Mr. Fuentes, now president of the local chapter of the United Steelworkers union, which represents several hundred employees here, said the longer the facility remained closed, the more people worried.
Energy Department officials say they are not yet certain what caused a puff of radioactive material to escape at the site, where nuclear waste has been buried 2,150 feet underground in ancient, mined-out salt deposits since 1999. Air monitoring devices sent into the mine initially showed no detectable levels of radiation, indicating that the leak had run its course, said Jose R. Franco, manager of the department’s Carlsbad field office. But on Tuesday, officials said that additional testing revealed that another release, this one very small, had occurred on March 11. According to the Energy Department, the second leak was not expected to have any impact.
Mr. Franco said he was optimistic that a team of workers could safely go underground in the next several weeks to try to figure out what went wrong. But the investigation, which will be painstaking, is still in its early stages, and the truckloads of contaminated Cold War waste from around the country that usually keep the plant bustling have been placed delayed.
Mr. Franco, a Carlsbad native, moved back with his wife to work at the plant after spending years at nuclear facilities elsewhere.
Like others here, he emphasized that the plant was critical to the nation and to the town.
This is a place, not far from the Texas state line, that once relied on the boom-and-bust whims of potash mining and production from the oil and gas wells that speckle the endless desert outside of town. But the plant brought economic stability and pride to Carlsbad. People who work there see themselves as carrying out a vital mission for the good of the country.
Betty Richards, who owns a trailer park in Carlsbad, N.M., has been a vocal critic of the plant, for 40 years. Credit Mark Holm for The New York Times
“The event that has happened has changed WIPP,” Mr. Franco said, using the popular nickname for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. “But we need it to reopen.”
Residents of Carlsbad speak of how the plant has transformed the area: Over the years, it has lured scientists and engineers to live here, more than 100 miles from any major city, where the main attraction aside from mining had always been Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a labyrinth of deep limestone caves.
Alongside the strip of ramshackle motels and fast-food chains, larger, nicer hotels have sprung up, and the Energy Department built a shimmering field office on the edge of town.
The schools have gotten better, residents said, as has the town’s infrastructure, thanks to $3.5 million a year in congressional funding from 2003 to 2010.
For 14 years, the Energy Department also poured $20 million annually into the coffers of the New Mexico Transportation Department to help improve roads in the area and pay other costs associated with the plant.
“The Department of Energy has been good to us,” said Bob Forrest, a former mayor of Carlsbad, who recalled the battles over the plant in the 1970s and ’80s, when city officials had to convince wary residents that it would be an economic boon.
Ms. Richards acknowledges that the plant changed Carlsbad, a desert town of about 27,000 in southeastern New Mexico, for the better, but she wonders at what cost. Credit Mark Holm for The New York Times
And it clearly has been, perhaps more than residents could have imagined at the time. “It’s been a win-win,” Mr. Forrest said. “For so long, people didn’t come back to towns like this, and now everybody wants to get back home.”
But that was until last month. At weekly town hall meetings since the leak, residents have voiced concerns about the extent of the contamination, and some have wondered whether the facility will ever reopen.
“The obvious concern among people here is, ‘Will I have a job?’ ” said John Heaton, a former state legislator who is now chairman of the Carlsbad mayor’s nuclear task force.
Not everyone, however, wants operations to resume.
Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste program at the Southwest Research and Information Center, an environmental watchdog group in Albuquerque, said he had grown worried in recent years that overconfidence had settled in at the plant. He acknowledged that the facility had outperformed many people’s expectations in terms of safety; its record until this year was essentially unblemished.
But on Feb. 5, a truck caught fire underground, forcing workers to be evacuated. Officials at the plant said that the fire was unrelated to the leak, and that it had occurred in a different section of the mine from where the waste is stored. An accident report released this month concluded that inadequate training and poor maintenance had contributed to the fire.
“We thought we knew what we’re doing, and we start getting complacent,” Mr. Hancock said.
At a trailer park tucked away off Carlsbad’s main drag, Betty Richards, one of the few residents here who has spoken out against the plant, said she recognized that it had changed Carlsbad for the better. But she wondered at what cost, and said the facility should be shuttered for good.
“We were promised it would never leak,” said Ms. Richards, who owns the trailer park. “When it happened, I thought to myself, ‘Well, this happened in my lifetime,’ which I never thought I’d see.”
Out at the plant, most people are gone. The contractor that operates the facility is retraining workers, who will continue to be paid, to help with the decontamination process.
Eight cylinders of nuclear waste that were shipped here around the time of the accident are still waiting to be buried. Energy Department officials are weighing what to do with the waste if the facility stays closed.
Despite the uncertainty, there is still a sense in Carlsbad that the plant has provided such a unique service to the nation that its operations are bound to continue at some point.
Mr. Fuentes, the union leader, said the fact that other Energy Department sites depend on the plant to dispose of Cold War nuclear waste gave him hope that it might start up again soon.
“Did we ever think it could happen? No, but it did,” he said. “So everybody has to come to terms with the reality that life as we knew it at WIPP is going to be different now.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 21, 2014, on page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: A Livelihood in Nuclear Waste, Under Threat.
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