This article originally appeared in the August 1979 issue of playboy magazine.
The Pecos river runs green and cool through Carlsbad, New Mexico, the town that gave its name to the famous caverns, down in the southeastern corner of the state. If you meet a man in Carlsbad named Bob Light, and if you get on with him, he’ll show you the river. He’ll put you in one of the throaty, silver-flake jet boats he sells as a side line to his oil-prospecting business and take you for a cruise up the Pecos past the expensive riverside houses that the better people in Carlsbad occupy. He’ll tell you who built the houses–his father-in-law built some of them and Bob and his attractive wife, Jo Anna, built theirs themselves, laid 55,000 bricks on the facings and the grounds–and he’ll tell you about the people who live in the houses. You’ll reverse at the country club, tennis courts along the river, and return past the long riverside park, where boys and old men are fishing lazily in the afternoon sun, past the small amusement park on the east bank that the local Coca-Cola people built and maintain for Carlsbad’s kids, even though it probably operates in the red from year to year, reverse again at the city power plant that runs cleanly on local natural gas, and dock at the city park. Bob will slip you into the restored XK-E Jaguar convertible you just watched him buy, cash on the barrelhead, as a surprise Valentine’s Day present for his wife, and with the top down, wind-blown in Sunbelt warmth, you’ll spin through the town, Bob pointing out the landmarks.
Bob will do all this for you partly because he’s an open, generous man–president of Barber Oil, Inc., of Carlsbad; one of three elected county commissioners for Eddy County, of which Carlsbad is the county seat; Western handsome, with three grown sons; talented, intelligent, well educated; good company anywhere.
But partly Bob will be showing you the river and the clean, pleasant town because he wants you to see for yourself that the people of Carlsbad aren’t pinheaded or hermaphroditic. He wants you to see that they’re normal and live normally in a normal American community, even though they, the better people, especially, are possibly the only people in North America who lately have been willing even to consider welcoming, near their town, the first permanent underground repository for the United States Government’s millions of cubic feet of accumulated radioactive wastes.
WIPP, the repository is called: Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. It’s still on the drawing boards. It’s been on the drawing boards since 1972, its projected date of completion slipping farther and farther forward in time. The U.S. Department of Energy is still working on preliminaries, drilling bore holes, extracting cores. The site, at least, is firm: a grim stretch of red-sand barrens 26 miles east of Carlsbad populated by creosote bush and rattlesnakes and vinegarroons. Government land. Eight-cow-units-to-the-section land–a section is 640 acres, one square mile–the sorriest land around. Salt beds below the barrens–thick, almost level salt beds 2,000 feet down. Maybe a little gas and oil deep under the salt beds and some potash above. If WIPP is ever built, it will be a sort of mine. Some of the salt will be excavated through shafts, and then nuclear wastes will be stored in the excavated spaces, at 2100 and 2600 feet. Sixty acres of buildings up on the sand–buildings for contact-waste handling, for remote-waste handling, for administration–and a railhead and an all-weather road. Twenty-one hundred acres of underground storage below. It sounds secure enough. It even sounds innocuous. It may be, but no one knows: Nothing like it has ever been attempted before. Its fate should be determined within the next 24 months.
Carlsbad, writes a New Mexican historian, was a “gentleman’s town.” She means gentlemen founded it, cattle gentlemen–founded it deliberately out on the open range. Carlsbad mayor Walter Gerrells tells the story best, sitting tall back in the shoe department of his large Carlsbad clothing store that smells of new denim and boot leather and wool. “Carlsbad didn’t just happen,” he says. “It wasn’t a couple of little old shacks on a crossing of the river. It was a land promoter’s dream.” Gerrells is a native New Mexican. He’s spent his life in Carlsbad; he’s been its popular mayor since 1970 and he was a city councilman for six years before that. “This area was the last part of New Mexico to be settled by the Anglo people,” he explains. “The Spanish people were all over at the Rio Grande. Back in the 1860s, Kit Carson rounded up all the Navahos, 3000 of them, and set them to farming around Fort Sumner, 150 miles to the north on the Pecos. Texas was pretty well settled up by then. The only thing that kept the Texans out of this part of New Mexico was that east of here, up on the cap rock, there wasn’t any water.
"But a couple of guys down in Austin had a lot of cattle, and they figured out that they could bring their cattle across West Texas, hit the Pecos down about 50 miles south of here, drive them up the river and sell them to the Government at Fort Sumner for the Navahos. One of them was named Eddy, Charles B. Eddy. There wasn’t any town here then and they said, Well, if we can just get together and dam up the river, we can sell land to people who want to come out here and we’ll make some money. So they formed a company and got some brochures together, and then they had to find–I won’t call him a sucker–they had to find someone with money to back them. They found a guy named James John Hagerman. Hagerman had made $7,000,000 silver mining in Colorado. Seven million dollars in 1880 was a lot of money. Hagerman was interested, he was a visionary and he footed the bills, and they went into this thing and built dams, built irrigation canals, and the prospectus that went out said they were going to irrigate 6,000,000 acres of land. Well, we got 21,000. But they went to France, Italy, the East Coast, and they advertised and sold this land to people and got them out here. They even built a railroad up from Pecos, Texas. That’s how Carlsbad got started. It was a promoter’s deal.”
Carlsbad was named Eddy then, but at the turn of the century, the dams washed out and the town’s fortunes declined until someone realized that the gushing mineral springs up the river could restore them. Eddy changed its name to Carlsbad and became a spa, capitalizing on the reputation of a famous European health resort–its waters were similarly blackish, and in those days, soaking in mineral water was a fashionable cure for a long list of ills.
If Carlsbad already seems to you a town energetic in self-promotion, you’re right: It was and is. It has had to be, for survival. Nineteenth Century New England, inward from the fine harbors of its coast, survived by marketing its most disadvantageous resources, granite and ice. Carlsbad’s initial disadvantages were semidesert land and brackish water, and it thrived for a time on both. Then, in 1912, when the spa fad was in decline, an oil wildcatter drilling east of Carlsbad tasted his drilling wastes and discovered them to be potash–potassium salts, an important fertilizer–the first such find on Federal land in the United States. By the early Thirties, Carlsbad had transformed itself into a mining town. “Up through the Fifties,” Gerrells remarks, “we had a virtual monopoly in the Western Hemisphere on potash.” Carlsbad Caverns, which opened as a national park in 1930, gave the mining town a tourist side (863,000 visitors last year, 900 motel rooms in little Carlsbad). In 1960, Carlsbad counted 25,541 permanent residents. They worked at mining potash, at servicing the tourists, at farming and ranching and retail enterprise. They were comfortable and modestly prosperous; unemployment was low; they enjoyed the river and the Southwestern sun.
“But we woke up here one morning in 1967,” Gerrells recalls, “October 13, and U.S. Potash, the largest employer in Carlsbad, announced that as of the first of the year, it would cease operation.” With new discoveries in Saskatchewan, the bottom dropped out of the potash market. Prices sank as low as $11 a ton, down from a high of $50. “The result, by Post Office count,” Gerrells concludes gloomily, “was 1250 empty houses in Carlsbad in 1969. Our population by the 1970 census was 21,297.” Carlsbad had lost almost 5000 residents in ten years.
Ned Cantwell, the editor and publisher of the Carlsbad Current-Argus, continues the story. “So the town got really geared up for promotion.” Cantwell directs a modern, efficient newspaper plant near the railroad yards in Carlsbad. Young, tennis-trim, with curly salt-and-pepper hair, he’s an Ohio native who grew up in Southern California. He went to Carlsbad in 1971 and he expects to spend his life there, WIPP or no. “When I arrived,” he remembers, “you could walk into at least one home on every block in Carlsbad and buy it just by taking over the, payments. So the town started advertising all over the country for retirees, and within two or three years, it just all turned around. Retirees started coming, potash came back up and stabilized, and home prices now are out of sight. I thought Southern California had the lock on promotion, but this gang down here is very promotion-minded. They’ve had to be. The mine closing was a terrible economic shock.”
The Atomic Energy Commission turned to New Mexico, which was midwife to the Atomic Age.
In the midst of the shock, in 1972, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission visited Carlsbad, hat in hand. Years of manufacturing nuclear weapons had swollen the AEC’s inventory of military nuclear wastes and it had no permanent place to bury them. It thought it had found a site near Lyons, Kansas, in an abandoned salt mine. It had assured the Kansas state legislature that the Lyons repository was safe, and then a quiet Kansas geologist had informed the legislature that the AEC had overlooked a number of old bore holes that penetrated the mine and that might allow the wastes to leak. Kansas booted the AEC out. It turned in some desperation to New Mexico, the state that served as midwife to the Atomic Age.
On July 16, 1945, north and west of Carlsbad 160 miles across the Sierra Blanca, on a stretch of terrible desert the conquistadors had called the Jornada del Muerto, the journey of the Dead, at a place code-named Trinity, the United States exploded the world’s first atomic bomb, and despite the distance and the intervening range of mountains, Carlsbad saw the light of man-made Western dawn. Los Alamos, the secret scientific city up on a 7200-foot mesa north of Santa Fe, designed and built the bomb and shipped its cousin to Hiroshima and its twin to Nagasaki. A portion of the wastes destined 5, for WIPP is stored at Los Alamos today. When it comes to nuclear matters, no state in the nation is more experienced than New Mexico.
“So some potash officials and some officials of the AEC came here in 1972,” says Gerrells. “We met with them. We had lunch with them. Senator Gant, our state Senator, was there, plus myself, the county commissioners and others, and the AEC laid it right on the table. ‘We’ve been up at Lyons, we’ve had some problems there, we want to look at salt beds in southeastern New Mexico, what we’re trying to do is find a safe place to isolate low-level nuclear wastes.’ So right then, we went to Santa Fe and met with Governor Bruce King [who is once again New Mexico’s governor, having been reelected in 1978 to a second, nonconsecutive term], and we adopted more or less a policy, if you want to call it that. It’s still our same basic policy today: As long as the studies done by the scientific world, the environmental-impact statements, all the other data indicate no harm to the environment or the people, we’ll support the project. That’s the way we felt then, that’s where we are now.”
Mayor Gerrells feels that way and so do Ned Cantwell and Bob Light. The Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce feels that way, and the Department of Development, and the Motels Association, the labor unions and an organization of Carlsbad businessmen called Carlsbad Industrial Action, Inc.–the C.I.A. Carlsbad’s bankers are said to feel that way, as do officials of its area potash companies. How the townspeople of Carlsbad feel, or the people of New Mexico, no one knows for sure. Nuclear-waste disposal has been rejected, across the United States, by at least eight states–among them, Michigan, Louisiana, South Dakota, Vermont, South Carolina, Kansas and Georgia (in the latter case, by a governor named Jimmy Carter). Given the volatility of matters nuclear, no one in New Mexico has yet dared formally to poll the population, though efforts to force a referendum are under way in the state legislature.
New Mexico is poor and underpopulated and largely barren. It depends heavily on extractive industries–potash, uranium, gas and oil–whose resources will play out early in the 21st Century. Los Alamos was an economic godsend. So are the clean assembly rooms of Sandia Laboratories, in Albuquerque, that fit into finely polished casings the plutonium and lithium hydride of the nation’s hydrogen warheads. If WIPP comes to New Mexico, its more outspoken proponents argue, so, probably, will the lion’s share of the front and back ends of the nuclear-fuel cycle: uranium-enrichment plants, plutonium-reprocessing plants, larger waste repositories. John O'Leary, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy, told New Mexico as much on one of his periodic swings through the state to conduct hearings on WIPP and proselytize for nuclear power.
It’s not an accident, he said, that they make bumpers in Detroit. But if WIPP isn’t welcome, neither will the “bumpers” of the nuclear industry be. A fair proportion of the wastes targeted for disposal at WIPP is contaminated rubber gloves, booties, industrial tissue. If the Department of Energy, the AEC’s successor, can’t find a place to bury gloves and booties and Kleenex, it’s not likely to find a place to reprocess thousands of tons of warm plutonium. Picking their way between imagined future benefits and present citizen fears, the politicians of New Mexico are walking on eggs. They don’t seem to realize–any more than do the city fathers of Carlsbad or Deputy Secretary O'Leary–that the eggs are already broken.
Nuclear power supplies 13 percent of United States electrical capacity today, three percent of total energy, but the nuclear-power industry is a dinosaur industry already in precipitous decline, its demise hastened by such events as the near calamity at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island last March. The miraculous conversion of matter into energy that was supposed to deliver electricity too cheap to meter has priced itself, and complicated itself, out of further competition. United States utilities ordered 41 power reactors in 1973, the year of the Arab oil embargo. In 1978, they ordered none. Between 1974 and 1978, they canceled or deferred 24 orders and placed 11, and they’re going slow on those. Breeder-reactor research has been curtailed at Jimmy Carter’s order and plutonium reprocessing embargoed. Three of the four remaining domestic reactor manufacturers are operating at a financial loss, and at least two of them are likely, within the next decade, to permanently close their doors.
Proponents of nuclear power believe they failed at public relations–at convincing Americans that nuclear power is safe–but they failed first at basic physics and at simple cost accounting shortly after that. About one fourth of all the energy consumed in the United States today is used for low-temperature heating–in homes, to heat living spaces (continued on page 202) Waste of the Pecos (continued from page 158) and water–and a nuclear reactor is a monumentally inefficient machine for heating water and air. A third of U.S. energy moves our vehicles around, and unless we contrive to electrify our cars and trucks and trains, nuclear power is of no direct value for that. Nor can the United States, for all its prosperity, afford massive electrification, nuclear or otherwise.
If the United States had continued on the energy path it was following at the time of the Arab oil embargo, it would have had to do the following–by 1985–to meet demand: bring in 900 new offshore oil wells; open 170 new coal mines; open 100 new uranium mines; build one new uranium-enrichment plant, 40 fuel-fabrication plants and three fuel-reprocessing plants; build 180 new 800-megawatt coal-fired power stations, 140 1000-megawatt commercial nuclear reactors (at a current price of 1.2 billion dollars each), 160 hydroelectric and 350 gas-turbine power plants. Building these high-technology systems would have required 100,000 engineers, 420,000 craftspeople and 140,000 laborers, and would have cost more than one trillion dollars, about three fourths of the net funds that would have been available in the United States during the decade 1975–1985 for all private investment. We couldn’t possibly have afforded such a program; we couldn’t possibly have accomplished that much building, even if God or the Saudis had picked up the tab. It may not surprise you to learn that almost exactly such a program was proposed, in outline, in his January 1975 State of the Union message by none other than President Gerald R. Ford.
As long as we rely on nuclear power, we encourage nuclear proliferation and hasten the holocaust.
We may be grateful that the nuclear industry is collapsing. We would be well advised to encourage it on its way. A nuclear reactor, even a power reactor, is primarily a machine for making plutonium. As a by-product, it produces heat, which can be used, two thirds of it wasted, to make electricity. The only important use for plutonium in today’s world is in nuclear weapons. As long as we rely on nuclear power, develop its technology, export that technology around the world, we are encouraging nuclear proliferation and hastening the holocaust. If we turn away from nuclear power, so, necessarily, must other nations: We have been, throughout the world, its salesman and mainstay and support. A Soviet power reactor in Finland, for example, operates with U.S. and West German safety systems, which the Soviets didn’t bother to design and which the Finns quite properly demand. As the U.S. goes, in more ways than one, so goes the world.
We won’t shiver in the dark without nuclear power. There are other, simpler technologies we can turn to. But whether the United States follows a hard energy path or a soft, something will have to be done about nuclear wastes. They continue to accumulate from military sources as well as from civilian–bombs get old, like bullets, and must be replaced. Military and civilian wastes are now about equal in total radioactivity, though not in volume.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies waste into three categories: high-level, low-level and transuranic contaminated, or TRU. High-level waste is hot, and it emits penetrating gamma radiation. Much of it–military wastes from bomb making–is currently stored in liquid form, more than 76,000,000 gallons accumulating at a rate of about 300,000 gallons a year. Commercial high-level wastes, in the form of spent reactor fuel assemblies, represent the equivalent of more than 1500 metric tons of uranium, also accumulating–a commercial reactor runs through its fuel every three years. Low-level wastes, commercial and military–including those booties and gloves–total more than 80,000,000 cubic feet of waste packages, accumulating at a rate of 3,300,000 cubic feet a year. The commercial accumulation rate is increasing. TRU wastes may be low-level or high-level. They’re categorized separately because they are contaminated with long-lived elements heavier than uranium–neptunium, americium, plutonium–and will have to be segregated from the environment for geologic periods of time to allow their radioactivity to decay to safe levels. Military TRU waste, stored or buried, currently totals about 21,000,000 cubic feet. Another 3,500,000 cubic feet is expected to be generated by 1990, when WIPP is scheduled to come on line.
All these wastes are currently stored: aboveground in tanks, in trenches, in water-filled cooling pools at reactor sites. They present varying degrees of danger to mankind. Some of them will be rendered essentially harmless by radioactive decay in a few decades or a few hundred years, but some of them will continue to be dangerous for more than 240,000 years. Hence the need for some method of permanent disposal.
Scientists have proposed a number of ingenious disposal methods–including shooting wastes off into space and sinking them into the antarctic icecap, where they would melt their way down to bedrock–but the only even remotely practical disposal method at the present time is burial in deep geologic formations. The basic requirement of deep burial is isolation of the wastes from underground water, because water in contact with the wastes would eventually leach them into the environment.
Following this logic, in 1957, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the United States look into deep burial in salt beds. It reasoned that salt is highly soluble in water; therefore, salt beds that have lain undisturbed underground for millions of years must be dry, and are likely to stay dry for an unknown number of years to come. Salt is also a mastic: It deforms when it is heated. It would therefore, the NAS reasoned, fill in around hot waste canisters and seal them in place. That reasoning led directly to Lyons, Kansas, and then to the deep salt beds east of Carlsbad. Other scientists proposed looking into other geologic formations–granite, basalt, shale. The AEC was in a hurry. It gave only token attention to the other materials. It moved ahead on salt. The choice was less than inspired, as we shall see.
Midweek in Carlsbad: Valentine’s Day: I attend a Rotary Club luncheon as a guest of Bob Light. The Rotarians have invited their wives and the dining room is crowded. We pledge allegiance to the flag, and pray, and sit to a generous buffet. After we eat, the ushers pass out heart-shaped boxes of chocolates for the wives, and then a cast of Carlsbad high school seniors, clean-cut boys and pretty, confident girls, sings highlights from Oklahoma! They sing People Will Say We’re in Love and Poor Judd Is Dead and Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City. A classmate accompanies them on an upright piano. They are fresh as the morning. After the luncheon, I talk with an elderly, cane-wielding, impeccably dressed Harvard man, a retired Carlsbad rancher. He favors WIPP. He says people come out to his ranch on weekends and shoot holes in his cattle-watering tanks. He asks me if I realize who those people are. I say I don’t. He says they’re environmentalists.
Vocal opposition to WIPP first emerged in New Mexico in the summer of 1977, far to the north of Carlsbad in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Environmentalists denounced the project as a move to make New Mexico the unwitting dumping ground for all U.S. nuclear wastes. They saw WIPP as a measure of the Government’s desperation to solve the vexing problem of waste disposal, a problem that by itself could collapse the nuclear-power industry. With fuel reprocessing currently embargoed and no permanent repositories yet on line, the storage pools of commercial reactors are filling with spent fuel assemblies and some reactors may have to shut down by 1983 for want of storage space. Worse yet, from the nuclear industry’s point of view, one state after another–California, Maine, Iowa and Wisconsin so far–has declared a moratorium on new commercial reactors until a safe, proven method of waste disposal can be devised.
WIPP was originally scheduled to store only military wastes, and those in retrievable form, to study salt-bed disposal and to determine if it is practical and safe. So the Government said. The environmentalists didn’t believe it. They saw no reason to believe Energy Secretary James Schlesinger, who, as late as December 1978, was still calling for a “major use of nuclear power around the world.” They saw no reason to believe Schlesinger’s deputy John O'Leary, who was formerly energy advisor to Jerry Apodaca, Governor King’s predecessor, and who has been heard to say smugly that he has New Mexico in his pocket. WIPP, argued the environmentalists, wasn’t an experiment, nor a pilot plant, nor exclusively for military wastes; nor were the transportation systems designed to deliver wastes to Carlsbad–systems that would cross the state north and south at a rate of some hundreds of rail cars and trucks per year–proof against spills and contamination. The WIPP site wasn’t even selected on sound geologic principles, the environmentalists asserted: It was selected because it was politically expedient, on the assumption that New Mexico–and Carlsbad–would be the least likely places in the United States to reject the project out of hand.
In 1978, environmentalists in northern New Mexico succeeded in introducing into the state legislature a resolution calling for a constitutional question–on which the people of New Mexico would vote–banning nuclear wastes from the state. “We were amazed,” says Mayor Gerrells. “At first we were kind of mad, and then we realized it didn’t do any good to get mad. We went up to the legislature and managed to convince them that you don’t change the constitution every time you have a damn problem. If it’s good, OK. If it’s bad, OK. But don’t change the constitution.” The resolution failed by a three-vote margin, 36–33.
In the meantime, opposition to WIPP finally surfaced in Carlsbad. A 29-year-old housewife, Roxanne Kartchner, who had never been politically active before, spoke out forcefully to the national press. “A friend of mine,” Kartchner remembers, “was told by Mayor Gerrells in no uncertain terms that WIPP was none of her business, none of the town’s business. The mayor was very angry and upset about it. That made me curious. Anything that goes on in this town and this country is my business. Any citizen’s business. I wondered why WIPP was such a tight, closed little arrangement. I wasn’t a radical hippie opposed to nuclear power. I was very ignorant about it. But I thought that whatever was going on should have open discussion. I have a little boy. He’s seven years old. It’s my responsibility to see that the future is safe for him in every way I can. So I got involved.” Sitting at the dining-room table of her suburban ranch house, she laughs. “For the first and last time.”
She continues: “I’m very, very opposed to the project now. I think the public was deceived. WIPP supposedly started out as a pilot project, but as I went through the documents from Sandia, which is the DOE’s contractor, I realized that WIPP had the potential for being much larger. It was supposed to contain low-level and TRU military wastes, period. But the documents say that it has the capacity to contain all the low-level, TRU and high-level wastes, both military and commercial, that will be generated in the United States well into the 21st Century. I thought that was strange, and when the DOE proposed adding 1000 commercial spent fuel assemblies to the waste inventory at WIPP, I saw why I thought so.”
The new DOE proposal, added to WIPP in 1978, has not yet been approved. It requires Congressional concurrence and Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing. It was almost certainly a response to the California moratorium. The DOE apparently reasoned that a quick demonstration of commercial-waste disposal at WIPP might satisfy the state commissions and lift the moratoria that California and other states had declared. The House Armed Services Committee doesn’t like the proposal because it brings a project that was supposed to be exclusively military under Congressional scrutiny and NRC licensing, a long and complicated procedure. Kartchner saw the proposal as a test of the DOE’s good faith–a test, in her opinion, that the DOE failed.
“I don’t think the commercial demonstration is something the DOE’s just come up with,” she says. “If a housewife in Carlsbad can foretell the full scope of WIPP, then it seems obvious to me that the DOE was thinking about enlarging it long before I found out. My philosophy is, tell us the whole truth, not half-truths. I’m not a physicist. I have to depend on these people–the Government people. If they haven’t been honest with me about the real scope of the project, how will I know they’re being honest with me about its safety?”
To fight WIPP, Kartchner formed a citizen’s group, the Carlsbad Nuclear Waste Forum, which currently has a membership of about 20 people. The group staged an anti-WIPP rally in the Carlsbad city park–no radiation without representation , the banners read–and more recently it has begun a door-to-door petition drive. Kartchner thinks the majority of Carlsbad’s citizens are opposed to WIPP, and she is bitterly critical of the town’s leadership for what she believes to be its suppression of dissent.
“I don’t think our leaders represent the public in Carlsbad. I don’t understand how they can say they do, because they’ve never asked the public. We’ve got support for the Forum that won’t speak out locally, people influential in the community. I personally asked them for donations. They were eager to give the money and they supported what we were doing, but they forbade us to use their names. Some people have been told that if they don’t butt out, their jobs will be in jeopardy. The impression I get is that it’s none of my business, that the public shouldn’t hear about it, that it’s a scientific decision and you aren’t qualified to make a scientific decision unless you’re the pro-WIPP editor of the newspaper, or a pro-WIPP politician, or a pro-WIPP businessman. Well, WIPP isn’t just scientific. It’s also political. I’m trying to get the issue before the people so we can vote on it.”
Carlsbad’s leaders are clearly not happy with state and local opposition to WIPP. “The anti-WIPP people are pretty well organized,” Mayor Gerrells says. “They’re going to the schools, where people are easily led, they’re going to the colleges, going to some of the churches, to the women–whoever is doing these things, they’re not doing them haphazardly. There’s no big swell of anti people. This is a well-thought-out campaign. It worries me. Not locally. It worries me that we have some organization that is concerned about stopping nuclear power and is attacking it all along the line. The next point of attack is the uranium mines. They could go after them next.”
“I just feel the WIPP business has gotten terribly emotional,” Bob Light said before we left on our boat ride up the river. “I can’t say I’m for WIPP or against it, because I’m still evaluating it. But I think we ought to continue to evaluate it until the time comes to make a decision, and I still feel that decision should be left up to the people who are knowledgeable. Our Federal Government has spent millions evaluating this project. We have terrific scientists working for the Federal Government. They know what it’s all about.”
Like many American communities, Carlsbad is run by an informal network of businessmen and businessmen-politicians. The community’s interest is usually also their own interest, and many of them volunteer their time. They rarely encounter dissent, nor are they comfortable with it. They make decisions over lunch, on the golf course, at the country club, as well as in council chambers and city offices. Activists have lately condemned this process of government as undemocratic, and it may be, but it continues with the plain labor of keeping communities running whenever activists fail to appear. Someone has to worry about sewage treatment, the condition of streets, the declining city hospital; in most communities, businessmen do. They take their responsibilities seriously, most of them; their motives are as much patriotic as social or economic. None of the Carlsbad leaders I met owns land at the WIPP site, nor is the transportation of nuclear wastes through Carlsbad likely to increase land values within the town. WIPP will inject most of $430,000,000 into the Eddy County economy; as businessmen and as elected officials, they have legitimate reason to welcome such funds. Provided. Provided WIPP is safe. They all qualify their endorsement of WIPP with that proviso. As they understand it, safety is what WIPP is supposed to prove. The people who oppose WIPP want its future in New Mexico determined by a vote of the people who will have to live with it for at least the next 30 years. Carlsbad’s leaders want the United States Government to decide.
The question that polarizes New Mexico, then, the question that is polarizing Carlsbad, is more fundamental than WIPP. The question is whether or not an American citizen can any longer trust the officials of his Government. The Bay of Pigs, the war in Vietnam, Watergate–they all look down on New Mexico like malevolent ghosts. Environmentalists clearly don’t trust the Government. Carlsbad’s leaders equally clearly do.
“We worked with the AEC,” says Mayor Gerrells, “then with its successor agency, and now with Sandia and the DOE. We have excellent communications with every one of these people. The people they’ve sent down here without exception are high-caliber people. Any problem that they’ve had in all the testing they’ve done over the past seven years, we’ve probably been the first people they’ve notified.”
“The DOE and its predecessors have been very honest and open and above-board with us,” says Eddy Lyon, Carlsbad’s director of development. Lyon, 54, a modest man with gray eyes and a weathered Western face, was an executive with a salt-mining company before he joined the Carlsbad administration in 1975; his children and his grandchildren live in New Mexico. “We’ve got no complaint,” he continues. “I don’t think they’re trying to do a cover-up job or anything. We’ve seen just volumes of material.” Lyon has put together a 64-page information brochure on the WIPP project. It’s exceptionally complete and answers numerous objections raised at public hearings. It’s based on Government data. It gives the Government’s answers.
“In all these matters,” Ned Cantwell summarizes, “I think that at some point you have to put your faith in someone’s integrity. I have a lot of faith in the integrity of Sandia, because I’ve known those people since 1972. I say to myself, Why would those guys knowingly put something in my back yard that’s going to kill my kids? I don’t think they would. I don’t think they’re motivated to sell us a bill of goods. They’ve been extremely open with us. And I just don’t believe it’s ethically or morally correct to be terribly provincial about this problem. You can’t just say, 'I don’t want it in my town, put it in your town.’ I believe that if Carlsbad is the place for it, then we at least have the responsibility to the rest of the country to allow the studies necessary to find out, because waste is a national problem and we’re part of the nation.”
Counters Roxanne Kartchner: “If I thought WIPP was good for the country, I’d just move out of Carlsbad. But I don’t think they’ve done enough to go ahead with WIPP. WIPP isn’t the best possible facility. It’s the only facility yet proposed. They’re not looking into disposal as seriously as they should be. If they put WIPP in here, everything I’ve seen about them indicates they’re going to say, 'Hey, relax, we’ve solved your problem.’ The funds are going to start dwindling, the research is going to go to pot and they’re going to continue with the status quo until something happens. Then we’re going to be stuck. Then we’re not going to have any choices.”
You see the conflict.
Governor King has not yet committed himself publicly on the question of nuclear-waste disposal in New Mexico. U.S. Senator Pete Domenici has committed himself to the extent of insisting that the DOE devise some mechanism for state concurrence in WIPP. Senator Harrison Schmitt, the former astronaut, has opposed siting commercial spent fuel assemblies at WIPP, an opposition that might be interpreted as either pro- or anti-WIPP, depending on whether you believe Schmitt is looking for a way to avoid NRC licensing or championing relative safety for the project in the form of only low-level wastes. The state legislature continues to debate. Carlsbad’s leaders don’t want a popular vote. Environmentalists do. Politicians being politicians, the people of New Mexico will probably have the last word on WIPP, this year or next. No one knows how the vote will go.
The U.S. Geological Survey has doubts about salt as a containment medium for nuclear wastes. “The mystique has built up that salt is dry and it’s OK,” Dr. David Stewart of the U.S.G.S. told The Washington Post last year. “Salt is not dry and it’s not OK.” The DOE has long planned to dry high-level liquid wastes and fuse them into glass logs. Materials scientists recently questioned such use of glass. Tests within the past year demonstrated that glass corrodes in a matter of days when subjected to heat and pressure in salt brine. The WIPP project also violates several criteria that the Environmental Protection Agency has established for long-term waste disposal.
Logically, the DOE and its predecessors should have started research on deep burial by testing a number of geologic media and selecting the most promising for a scaled series of experiments, leading eventually to one or more demonstration repositories like WIPP. That’s not what happened. The AEC chose salt, and Lyons, Kansas, and Carlsbad, and the DOE is forging ahead with WIPP. It’s easy to see why environmentalists suspect the department’s motives.
A more sensible approach to nuclear-waste disposal would be to continue storing the U.S.’s accumulation of wastes aboveground–where they will continue to cool, in terms of both heat and radioactivity–while investigating a number of possible disposal media. The impending decline of commercial nuclear power makes such an approach practical; the uncertainty of salt-bed storage makes it the better part of wisdom. If the DOE continues to push WIPP, it can only be doing so for political reasons–to bolster the commercial power industry and to establish a working disposal site before its site options are foreclosed everywhere in the United States. If it pushes too hard, it may lose New Mexico. The nation will then be back where it started in the early Sixties, with a growing inventory of wastes and no permanent place to put them.
Carlsbad got its own atomic bomb in 1961. Some wit in the bomb community named the operation Project Gnome. It was the first flowering of President Dwight Eisenhower’s dreamy, misguided Plowshare program that was supposed to hammer the nuclear sword into artificial Alaskan harbors and a new Panama Canal and that foundered on the 1963 ban on atmospheric testing: a modest explosion 1200 feet underground, in salt, not five miles from the proposed WIPP site. Carlsbad was fascinated. City leaders journeyed to Nevada’s Jackass Flats to watch the military testing above- and below-ground there. “Eminent scientists have concluded,” reported the Carlsbad newspaper, “that the [Gnome] explosion will be fully contained in the salt bed, that no radioactive material will escape and that underground formations will not be damaged.” The Gnome project manager explained that the explosion would create a hot cavity of molten salt. If all went well, his team would then pump in water and see if such a cavity could be harnessed for steam generation. Gnome wouldn’t be commercially viable, but later, larger explosions might be. When President John Kennedy approved the shot, late in 1961, the people of Carlsbad, its newspaper reported, were “quietly jubilant.”
Gnome was a bust. A Carlsbad surgeon, Dr. George B. Markle IV, a gray-templed, pipe-smoking Yale man, remembers watching the shot from an observers’ station four miles away, while his wife, back home on the Pecos, cooked up a batch of chili to feed the crowd. Scientists and officials from all over the world had assembled at the station, among them hawkish Dr. Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, a transplanted Hungarian. When the shock waves subsided, someone looked toward ground zero and turned uncertainly to Teller and asked, “Dr. Teller, what’s that white vapor coming out of the ground?” And Teller, nonplused, said, “Dot? Vhy, dot’s–dot’s–dot’s–vhite vapor.” The conclusions of eminent scientists notwithstanding, Gnome breached its containment; the radioactive cloud blew across the only road back to Carlsbad; the crowd waited four hours for the road to be decontaminated; the chili chilled.
“I don’t suppose it would be possible,” Mayor Gerrells muses, “but we have thought of taking our local officials and going direct to Washington and saying, 'You just come down here to Carlsbad and deal with us.’” Gerrells may be joking. “We’re a community that probably has a basic trust in the United States Government,” he says, not joking at all. “It appears to me that when you lose faith in government agencies, and in government itself, you’ve got a hell of a problem. We just don’t have that problem.”
“You can’t blame the politicians,” Roxanne Kartchner says near the end of our interview. “You can’t blame the mayor, you can’t blame the people who are financially affluent for controlling your life if you sit back and let them. I think we should all be working together. It really grieves me that we’re not.”
And the Pecos flows on, past salt and desert barrens and a pleasant Southwestern town that would have been described as quiet, once upon a time.
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