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Truck transporting TRU waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in 2012, still from Look Only at the Movement
For the next three weeks, smudge/FOP is based in Santa Fe, NM. While here, we’re catching up with the local New Mexican news, which includes the latest updates on “the radioactive puff” released from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) last February. In case you’re not familiar, WIPP is our nation’s only geologic repository for nuclear waste and specifically handles transuranic waste, not the high-level waste produced through nuclear power generation. The high-level waste continues to accumulate and shelter-in-place at hundreds of sites around the country.
The WIPP facility has been closed since the incident on February 14, 2014. Since then, there’s been scarce information about what happened and what has been done to address the accident (updated EPA reports can be found here). Wednesday night we tuned in to a live-stream town hall meeting from Carlsbad to learn the current status of the “recovery” (what caused the release stills appears to be a mystery) and to hear a representative from the Department of Energy (DOE) disclose that the accident was entirely preventable, and had resulted from a long list of inefficiencies including poor of training, faulty design, disorganized protocols and lack of preparation. (download the full EPA report here)
TRUPACT-II containers in parking lot outside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in 2012, still from Look Only at the Movement
What we found most notable was a remark describing worker culture at WIPP as being “more akin to that of a traditional mine than that of a nuclear facility.” Apparently most workers had no previous work experience in handling nuclear materials or nuclear waste storage. We find this surprising, given the extraordinary ways in which WIPP differs from a mine, perhaps most fundamentally in its mandate for isolating the enclosed materials from the environment for 10,000 years.
Yet, we can empathize with the workers, designers and engineers of this facility. There is no precedent to follow for maintaining deep geologic repositories for radioactive waste in the United States, especially those nested 2000 feet deep within enormous salt deposits, though there are less than encouraging examples to consider in Germany.
It seems important at this moment of change at WIPP that its workers be trained in the highly nuanced and complex skill sets required for preventing and handling nuclear accidents. It also seems important to remember that right now, we are always, already, handling materials that exceed our human capacities to shepherd them into their — and our — deep futures. We’re at the very beginning of an extremely long-term project (millennia, at minimum) of stewardship. We’re past the point of reversing our actions, so we must adapt and attempt to meet these material realities — while recognizing that when we work with nuclear materials we’re engaging complex events of change that set themselves apart from other activities, such as mining, in exquisitely potent ways.
Chihuahuan desert along Highway 285 in southern New Mexico, still from Look Only at the Movement
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