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Friday, 18 April 2014

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The mining area that went nuclear

IT’S JUST like West Cumbria – only with lots more hot sunshine. That’s Carlsbad in New Mexico, a place where, when mining declined, nuclear took over.

It was not exactly a rags-to-riches story, but billions of United States government dollars have since flowed into Carlsbad transforming the old mining town.

The comparison with West Cumbria is significant: a once prosperous coalfield area until all the pits closed and where nuclear is now king, Carlsbad is home to WIPP, the world’s only underground nuclear waste repository.

Soon West Cumbria is likely to be at the heart of a search for the UK equivalent of a place in which to bury Britain’s highly radioactive materials.

An opinion poll will shortly be launched soon to test Cumbrian attitudes.

Over the last decade it seems the people of Carlsbad, described as “a quiet city of 25,000 on the edge of Mexico’s empty, endless Chihuahuan desert”, has learned to live with WIPP’s role in helping solve America’s nuclear waste problem. Embracing waste entombment has brought it rich benefits.

Some 200,000 tons of high active waste has already gone into WIPP and Carlsbad appears to want more.

A banner headline in Forbes, the influential United States business magazine, reads: “Nuke Us: The Town that Wants America’s Worst Atomic Waste”.

The story says: “Unlike thousands of other places in America, where the thought of trucking in barrels of radioactive garbage from atomic weapons plants would lead to marches, face paint and invariably, pandering politicians... Carlsbad has a different take.”

Former Carlsbad mayor Bob Forrest is quoted: “It’s really a labour of love. We’ve proven that nuclear waste can be disposed of in a safe, reliable way.”

The magazine goes on: “This attitude – ‘Yes in My Backyard’ – has brought near permanent prosperity to this isolated spot that until recently had no endemic economic engine.

“Unemployment sits at 3.8 per cent, versus 6.5 per cent statewide and 8.5 per cent nationally. And thanks to this project New Mexico has received more than $300million in federal highway funds in the past decade, $100million of which has gone into the roads around Carlsbad.

“WIPP is the nations’s only permanent deep geological facility for nuclear waste. The roads have to be good for the two dozen trucks a week hauling in radioactive drums brimming with the plutonium-laden detritus of America’s nuclear weapons production.

“Before WIPP – Waste Isolation Pilot Plant – Carlsbad’s economy was mostly limited to potash mining, oil and gas drilling.

“The Dept of Energy’s $6billion program created 1,300 permanent jobs, many of them high-paid engineering positions. Energy’s annual budget for WIPP is $215 million, much of which stays in the community as wages. The leaders of neighbouring Lea and Eddy Counties have doubled down on the nuke biz, establishing a 1,000 acre atomic industrial park. Already uranium fuel maker Urenco Group has built a £3billion fabrication plant there, employing 300. More amenities followed: In November Carlsbad inaugurated the Bob Forrest Youth Sports Complex.

“‘We are not blinded by the jobs,’ says John Waters, director of the department of economic development for Eddy County. ‘We know what we have. We know the risks. We have a very educated public.’”

But the Forbes article adds: “If Carlsbad’s story showcases the upside of being willing to do the nation’s dirty work, it also demonstrates how difficult it can be to get the chance to do so. Since opening in 1999 WIPP has operated so smoothly and safely that Carlsbad is lobbying the feds to expand the project to make the nuclear mother lode: 160,000 more tons of the worst high-level nuclear waste in the country – things like the half-melted core of Three Mile Island and old nuclear fuel rods – that are residing at aging nuke plants a short drive from wherever you’re sitting now.

“Carlsbad has a Goldilocks geology that is the best solution yet found for entombing nuclear waste safely – it sits atop of the biggest salt deposit in America, stretching from New Mexico to Kansas. It was deposited 250 million years ago in the Permian period, when the seas receded from the shore of the ancient continent Pangea. The salt has lain undisturbed ever since.”

AMERICAN couple Bill and Joyce Keeley, now of Egremont, lived and worked in Carlsbad. from 1989 to 2005.

Bill worked at WIPP. For some time Dick Raaz, until recently managing director of LLWR, Drigg, headed up the New Mexico operation.

Knowing Bill and Joyce for some time since they left the States to live in Egremont (Bill is an adviser working on the Sellafield site), I talked to them about their Carlsbad experience, and especially how the local community adapted and accepted the repository.

This is their account:

“We moved to Carlsbad for Bill’s work, expecting to stay one or two years. We stayed 16 years.”

What is southeast New Mexico like in comparison to West Cumbria? “There are several major differences (the obvious one is the weather – the temperature once reached 50 degrees C when we lived in Carlsbad!), but what strikes us are the similarities:

“The population of Carlsbad and Whitehaven are nearly identical.

“Both areas are primarily rural located some distance from motorways.

“Both are areas of great scenic beauty (Carlsbad Caverns National Park and the Lake District National Park).

“Both areas have a strong mining heritage (potash mining in Southeast New Mexico, iron ore and coal mining in West Cumbria).

“Both areas have proud, hard-working residents interested in improving the quality of lives and the lives of their children.

“Both have organisations and public officials actively pursuing socio-economic development.

“And both are the host regions of government nuclear facilities.”

Bill worked in a number of management roles at WIIP. This is the US government’s deep-underground repository for transuranic waste (waste contaminated with radioactive elements such as plutonium) while Joyce worked in the Carlsbad public school system as a teacher.

“When we arrived in 1989, construction of WIPP had just been completed and the site was preparing the workforce, processes, and procedures for facility start-up. Nearly everyone we met in town was supportive of the site and the jobs that it created during tough economic times, but it clearly wasn’t a case of ‘blind faith.’ Their support was contingent upon the site achieving world-class safety performance from the onset.

“Local business people, our neighbours, local government officials, and site workers all said that WIPP must ‘start clean and stay clean.’

“Many people and organisations in the northern part of the state of New Mexico were opposed to or worried about WIPP. In addition, there were complex legal and regulatory issues and challenges to overcome. For these reasons, some people openly doubted the facility would ever open. We weren’t among them, because we knew that the US needed the facility in order to safely dispose of radioactive waste located across the country... and extraordinary steps were being undertaken to ensure that all stakeholder safety concerns were addressed while simultaneously building a world-class safety culture at the site. These measures included:

“Hundreds of meetings with the public and stakeholder groups in Carlsbad, the region, and across the state.

“Hundreds of roadshows across the state of lorries and containers that would be used to transport the nuclear waste.

“Hundreds of tours of the underground repository for the public, public officials, special interest groups – anyone who wanted to see the facility with their own eyes.

“Application of the highest standards for safety in the world. WIPP isn’t a submarine or a nuclear power plant, but nuclear navy and nuclear power standards were applied because they were best-in-class.

“Ceaseless operational readiness reviews, training, and retraining at the site to keep everyone on their toes.

“Monitoring of the environment by an independent laboratory.

“This work wasn’t performed just by WIPP personnel. Many, many people in Carlsbad served as official and unofficial ambassadors for WIPP, working tirelessly in support of the site and its mission. Legal, regulatory, and stakeholder issues, concerns, and challenges were addressed and the site received its first shipment of waste in March 1999, about 10 years after we moved there.”

Did the site keep its promise? Did it establish a world- class safety record? Did it start clean and stay clean? “The answer is yes, yes, and yes. Since opening in 1999, WIPP lorries have completed more than 10,000 shipments of radioactive waste to WIPP, racking up more than 13 million safe loaded miles travelled without a single release to the environment.

“WIPP workers have disposed more than 150,000 containers of radioactive waste in the underground repository without a single release to the environment. That is enough waste to completely fill the Royal Albert Hall. Every container safely disposed of in the WIPP underground repository translates into the reduction of risk posed by radioactive waste stored on the surface across the country, where it is vulnerable to fire, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and terrorism.

“In almost 13 years of WIPP operations, the US government has cleaned up 21 nuclear sites, eliminating the risk from the transuranic waste that was once stored there. Meanwhile, WIPP regularly earns state, national, and international awards and accolades for safety. The degree to which safety has been woven into the fabric of WIPP is probably best exemplified by what a WIPP worker once told us: ‘No matter where I go in the country, I always feel safest when I’m inside of the fence at WIPP.’

“The success of WIPP has translated into socio-economic success for Carlsbad and southeast New Mexico:

“One thousand jobs at the site and several thousand indirect jobs in small businesses located in the surrounding communities.

“Total impact/economic development spending in New Mexico has exceeded $600 million (£380 million).

“Degree and training programmes at local colleges and universities.

“Spin-off businesses, such as a major waste container manufacturer.

“Establishment of a new uranium enrichment facility in the region.

“Based on our observations and experience, we believe every single resident in Carlsbad and southeast New Mexico realised benefits from the repository. If it sounds like we are ‘cheerleaders’ for WIPP, Carlsbad, and southeast New Mexico, it is because we are! We are proud of the site, city, and region and thankful to have lived in a place with an underground nuclear repository in our back yard.”

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