Who knows what one might find in London in 10,000 years’ time? Or New York or Berlin? The town of Carlsbad, by contrast, has a clear future ahead. For the next 10,000 years, a facility nearby will store clothing, lab equipment, rags, and other everyday items contaminated by atomic bombs.
At the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), located in the desert 26 miles (42 kilometres) from Carlsbad, New Mexico, toxic material is stored 2,150 feet (655 meters) below the surface in plastic-lined steel drums in rooms carved out of a 250-million-year-old salt bed. “Bedded salt is free of fresh flowing water, easily mined, impermeable and geologically stable; an ideal medium for permanently isolating long-lived radioactive wastes from the environment. However, its most important quality in this application is the way salt rock seals all fractures and naturally closes all openings,” informs the US Department of Energy, which is in charge of storing the United States’ nuclear arsenal.
Since becoming operational 16 years ago, WIPP has been filled to about half of its capacity. It will be sealed in 2033, and for the following 10,000 years the nuclear-contaminated material will be safely kept away from humanity. After that milestone, the plutonium-polluted items will no longer emit dangerous levels of radiation.
But a counterintuitive and highly alarming problem has emerged. Thanks to nuclear disarmament treaties–notably START I, signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1991–the US and Soviet nuclear arsenals have shrunk dramatically. The United States is now thought to have some 7,200 nuclear warheads, while Russia has around 7,500. During the height of the Cold War, the two countries were thought to have more than 30,000 nuclear warheads each. That means that the US is dismantling lots of warheads.
In total, it will dispose of 34 tons of plutonium, which it was planning to convert into nuclear reactor fuel. But as Stanford scientists point out in an article in the current issue of the journal Nature, the conversion has proven expensive, and the government now wants to put the decommissioned material at WIPP. But nuclear security professor Rod Ewing and his co-authors argue that such an unconventional addition presents a security risk, as WIPP has in the past couple of years had two accidents involving radioactive leakage. And the authors note that an even bigger concern is the fact that the risk of drilling interference in the desert around WIPP was based on the activity level of the past century. Today drilling for gas and oil is much more common. What would happen if eager entrepreneurs were to start drilling near Carlsbad, NM, not knowing that remnants of weapons that could have destroyed Planet Earth many times over are stored nearby and might leak if their sarcophagus is damaged?