There really isn't a whole lot to say about the city of Carlsbad, New Mexico—except that it doesn't appear to have any fear of radiation.
It's an often hot and dusty mining town near the foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains in southeastern New Mexico, and if it's known for anything it would be as the place where you gas up and maybe grab a motel room before heading off to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
It's also a job-hungry metropolis of around 25,000 in a region of the state that has historically never had a problem being slightly irradiated by the federal government, and that both local residents and federal officials agree is an ideal place to dispose of highly-radioactive nuclear waste from the nation's nuclear weapons programs.
It's quite a marriage—the city supplies the desperation and willingness to tolerate pretty much anything, and the feds supply a steady stream of toxic baggage nobody else in the nation will touch.
But according to a Reuters report on Sunday, that relationship could be on hold for a while as officials with the U.S. Department of Energy try to figure out how to decontaminate the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) following a bizarre mishap earlier this year that left 21 workers dosed with radiation.
According to the Department of Energy, WIPP—which was approved by Congress in 1979 and took nearly 20 years to construct before opening in 1999—is designed to hold the radioactive waste in a 2,000-foot thick, 250 million year-old salt deposit nearly a half-mile underground around 30 miles or so outside of Carlsbad.
Former Energy officials say WIPP was built in such a way that a release of nuclear materials or radioactivity into the atmosphere was supposed to be a once-every-200,000 year risk. It only made it about 15 years.
On February 22, a still-unknown chemical reaction in a poorly-labeled 55-gallon drum of nuclear waste from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in a chamber deep underground apparently generated so much heat that it caused the container to burst open, sending a plutonium and americium-laden foam flying into a ventilation duct and out to the surface where it gave 21 workers a low-level dose of radiation.
Officials say the February incident at WIPP highlighted some serious problems with the facility, and they really don't know how much it's going to cost to fix, or even exactly what it is that they're cleaning up in the first place.
Investigators say that the drum mostly contained nitrate salts used in the plutonium-extraction process, along with an unknown variety of materials—possibly including anything from lead to kitty litter—making the process of determining exactly what happened in the salt mines some 2,100 feet below the surface back in February extremely difficult.
The incident highlights what investigators are calling serious concerns about technical shortcomings and safety lapses at the now-temporarily closed facility. According to the Times, the cost of cleanup, safety upgrades and delays could top $1 billion.
"The accident was a horrific comedy of errors," said James Conca, a scientific advisor and expert on the WIPP. "This was the flagship of the Energy Department, the most successful program it had. The ramifications of this are going to be huge. Heads will roll."
According to a preliminary report issued earlier this year, investigators noted that the facility did not have an adequate radiation safety protection plan in place and had a workplace culture that made workers reluctant to bring up safety issues or complain about failing equipment or conditions, among many other problems.
This is not exactly the sort of thing you would want to hear about a facility that deals with a highly-radioactive and toxic substance that's also the key component in the trigger mechanisms of hydrogen bombs.
WIPP officials say that it could take at least 18 months to clean and upgrade the facility before it could start taking in nuclear waste again—which is bad news for a lot of nuclear weapons facilities across the west facing now virtually-impossible deadlines from state environmental agencies for removing their radioactive waste.
And yet through it all, like a infinitely forgiving spouse, the city of Carlsbad has kept the welcome mat out for the entire WIPP operation, which employs about 1,200 people and has an operating budget of about $200 million in a region where work of any kind—much less well-paying high-skilled jobs like those provided by WIPP—can be scarce.
"I want the secretary to see that this community is behind WIPP," greeting organizer and First Christian Church Pastor Dave Rogers told the Carlsbad Current-Argus. "The idea is to have a large presence and stand in solidarity because this is one of the things that we can truly get behind and make a difference."
"All of these things are in our mutual interest: getting back as soon as we can and keeping our skilled workforce together," Moniz said. "We're going to have bumps in the road, (but) we're going to continue to advocate for the resources needed."
Yes, it's quite the marriage indeed.
Image via AP