ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A coalition of environmentalists and nuclear watchdogs on Tuesday delivered more than 1,000 petition signatures to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asking her to take all steps necessary to stop any expansion of the federal government’s nuclear repository in southeastern New Mexico.
Dozens of people gathered at the state Capitol because they are concerned about the potential for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to be a disposal site for diluted plutonium.
They said the dump was never intended for that type of radioactive waste.
The underground repository currently takes in special boxes and barrels packed with low-level waste that consists of lab coats, rubber gloves, tools and debris contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements.
The repository was carved out of an ancient salt formation about a half-mile (0.8 kilometer) below the surface, with the idea that the shifting salt would eventually entomb the radioactive waste left from decades of bomb-making and nuclear weapons research.
In the petition, the group raises concerns about diluted plutonium being shipped across the country and through New Mexico. They also point out that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the federal government’s only underground repository and that New Mexico stands to serve as the nation’s dumping ground without the development of other disposal sites.
The speakers at Tuesday’s demonstration ran the gamut from a third-generation cattle rancher to a Santa Fe County commissioner. A group called Veterans for Peace flew a white-dove flag.
The governor’s office said Tuesday that Lujan Grisham has been in contact with U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and has relayed the concerns New Mexicans have.
“This citizen petition highlights the frustration of New Mexicans with DOE’s Environmental Management program,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor. “We fully expect the Department of Energy to meaningfully engage with stakeholders in New Mexico communities on this issue.”
Sackett also pointed to previous criticisms made by New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney about a lack of transparency regarding the plutonium plan and waste shipments to WIPP more generally.
Lujan Grisham also has voiced opposition to a separate proposal that calls the temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants at a planned private multibillion-dollar facility in southern New Mexico.
In that case, the governor and members of the state’s congressional delegation have written letters and submitted public comments against storing the spent fuel in the state because the federal government has yet to come up with a plan for permanent disposal of the material.
In December 2020, the Energy Department indicated that it would begin drafting an environmental impact statement as one of the first steps toward diluting and disposing of plutonium left over from the Cold War.
The notice states that processing the material would be necessary to reduce radioactivity enough for the waste to be accepted at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. The work would involve shipping the material from the Pantex Plant in Texas to Los Alamos National Laboratory, where it would be turned into a powder, and then to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where it would be further diluted, and then back to New Mexico for disposal.
Associated Press writer Morgan Lee contributed to this report from Santa Fe.
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