Inside the Capitol

Monday, July 26, 2004

WIPP Transportation Not all That Danderous

SANTA FE – Albuquerque is up in arms about nuclear waste shipments starting up again through its fair city. Somehow, Albuquerque is special and shouldn’t have to endure what many other communities have dealt with for years.
They say they are bigger than the rest of us so more people are at risk. They fail to note that much of that growth was due to nuclear energy. Actually there are numerous factors opponents of nuclear waste shipments fail to recognize.
One of those factors is that no one has ever suffered harm as a result of a mishap from one of these shipments – or any other shipment of nuclear material.
And that brings up a very major point. Nuclear materials have been carted around this nation for over 60 years now – without anyone being hurt and without anyone complaining. Of course the reason no one complained is that, wisely, the government didn’t talk about the shipments going to Los Alamos and other nuclear labs, as it has about the shipment of nuclear waste.
If all those shipments going to Los Alamos over the years had been revealed, the Soviet Union likely would have been the only nuclear superpower and no telling where we would be now – speaking Russian, maybe. Because anti-nuke protesters would have had the trucks bottled up just like they did with the WIPP trucks for so many years.
It was 10 years ago that federal Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary revealed that as many as 140 plutonium shipments a year had been trucked to Los Alamos during the previous half century. O’Leary didn’t run her department very well, but one thing she did bring to it was some real candor about how much of the government’s withheld information was really in the national interest.
Nuclear activists were furious at O’Leary’s revelation. At a public meeting in Santa Fe many of them expressed outrage at being kept in the dark for so long. Evidently, the anti-nuke folks thought scientists were growing plutonium up on The Hill.
Since that time, 25 to 50 shipments of plutonium a year have been going up the hill, about 285 pounds of plutonium a year. Much of that material was in the form of plutonium “pits,” the radioactive metal sphere at the heart of nuclear bombs.
The pits were subjected to performance and aging tests under the government’s pit surveillance program. After testing, they were shipped out again, mostly to the Rocky Flats plant near Denver. When it closed, some of the pit making was shifted to Los Alamos.
We aren’t sure exactly how much of the pit making was done there, or whether it was just experimental modifications being made on the pits. The government was rather secretive about that because it had learned it lesson with the waste disposal issue not to give anti-nuke protesters too big a target.
But the point is that all the fuss about pit making at Los Alamos because these highly radioactive cores of nuclear bombs had long been worked on up there and they had long been transported in and out.
So it is hard to understand how people can get so upset about shipments of gloves, rags and lab coats that have been exposed to contamination, when they realize that more powerful stuff is sneaking past them all the time.
Since Secretary O’Leary’s disclosure a decade ago, protesters seem to have forgotten about the material traveling to our national labs. So it is amusing to consider the concerned citizens, who want to know exactly when nuclear waste shipments will be traveling near them, blithely passing unmarked trucks full of plutonium on their way to the health food store.
Maybe what they should be even more worried about is the hazardous material, such as gasoline, that travels our highways and passes through all communities every day that is not monitored at all like our nuclear waste shipments.


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