Plutonium Boom Has Town Glowing


Plutonium is saving this town.

David Brannan, who worked in the potash fields for 34 years, said his new job--helping to bury plutonium in the subterranean salt beds 26 miles away--allowed him to buy a snazzy new Honda Goldwing motorcycle.

At his family-owned Chevrolet dealership, Phil Carrell is selling high-end Suburbans, Tahoes and Corvettes to the scientists, engineers and government managers who have followed the plutonium here.

And Mel Vuk, provost of New Mexico State University’s local campus, blushes that he is able to hire part-time instructors who are highly educated specialists working at the plutonium burial site.


“It’s like Christmas--all these people with high-tech degrees who are in town and willing to teach,” he said. “It’s changed the academic landscape of Carlsbad.”

So it goes in this windblown, blue-collar town of 27,000 people in southeastern New Mexico, which faced an economic meltdown with the collapse of the local fertilizer industry and is now recasting itself as an improbable center of nuclear know-how.

The change in Carlsbad’s fortunes came with the creation of the U.S. Department of Energy’s first and only underground repository of low-level nuclear waste.

Many New Mexico politicians and environmentalists opposed development of the site because of perceived dangers, but Carlsbad’s civic leaders say the project’s trade-offs--minimal risks for high-grade employment--were well worth it.


The benefits accrued here could also occur in Las Vegas, some Nevadans suggest, if the federal government succeeds in developing Yucca Mountain as a dump for highly radioactive waste.

Opponents counter that any possible benefits to Las Vegas with the development of the $60-billion project are far outweighed by its risks.

Since opening in 1999, Carlsbad’s $2.5-billion Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP as it is affectionately known here, has safely disposed of more than 14,000 55-gallon drums crammed with clothing, rags, tools, soil and equipment contaminated by plutonium, a fuel for nuclear reactors and a key ingredient in nuclear weapons.

The radioactive rubbish is trucked here from Rocky Flats near Denver, from Los Alamos near Santa Fe, and from other federal defense facilities.


In contrast, the materials intended for Yucca Mountain, 90 miles from Las Vegas, include spent nuclear fuel rods that emit gamma rays that can quickly kill people exposed to them. The waste will need to be buried in impenetrable containers handled by robots, deep inside the mountain, but still be accessible for retrieval, perhaps hundreds of years from now, for possible recycling.

But while Nevada officials are fighting development of Yucca Mountain, which would add little employment to Las Vegas’ economy, civic leaders here welcomed plutonium for creating hundreds of jobs. Officials calculate that WIPP generates 12% of the town’s payroll.

Town folks take comfort that plutonium emits alpha rays, which can be stopped by a single sheet of paper or an inch of air. The long-term danger comes if plutonium particles are accidentally released, become airborne and are ingested or inhaled, damaging human tissue from within.

Workers wearing normal clothes lower the barrels by hoists to rooms excavated in the salt beds nearly a half-mile below the surface. Over time, the salt seals the room like a natural trash compactor.


When a plutonium burial site was proposed and rejected in Kansas for geological reasons in 1972, Carlsbad came courting. The local potash industry, which mined the barren fields and pastures for fertilizer, was struggling against worldwide competition, and the town needed a new industry.

Mayor Bob Forrest notes that every locally elected politician for 25 years has welcomed the government’s plutonium business. Environmental lawsuits delayed the opening of the facility for years.

To help overcome opposition, Congress promised New Mexico $300 million over 15 years. Most of the money is being spent on highways, including detours around Santa Fe and Carlsbad so the radioactive containers will not be driven through the middle of the towns.

When WIPP opened, hundreds of people welcomed the first delivery of plutonium. “We are the Department of Energy’s success story,” Forrest said.


About 820 people work at the site; 667 are employed by Westinghouse Electric Co., under federal contract to construct and operate the facility. The company is the largest employer in Carlsbad.

About half of its workers were hired locally, including many former potash miners. Others, including technicians, engineers and nuclear scientists, moved here from elsewhere--and have slowly adjusted to a quiet town with a Sears, a Wal-Mart, a bowling alley and two three-screen movie theaters, one indoors, one outdoors.

An additional 140 people work at a Westinghouse subsidiary that constructs the stainless steel containers that each carry 14 barrels for transport to Carlsbad aboard flatbed trucks.

Jesse Laman, 43, is paid $16.80 an hour as a container welder, compared to $14.53 he made hourly as a mechanic in the potash fields.


“I’ve got benefits, a retirement program, all that,” he said. “I wouldn’t still be in town if it weren’t for this job.”

The benefits of WIPP to Carlsbad extend beyond new, blue-collar employment--and suggest what might occur in Las Vegas if Nevada is unable to stop the development of the Yucca Mountain project.

The Department of Energy funded a $25-million environmental monitoring and research center at the local New Mexico State University campus.

Its 29 scientists and technicians monitor air, soil, water, plants and employees to detect any radiological releases, and conduct radioactivity research for other government and private laboratories.


“The type of work we’re doing here on plutonium is not done anywhere else in the world,” said its director, Joel Webb.

Health physicist Dave Schoep, hired away from a Las Vegas laboratory to work at the research center, speculates that if Yucca Mountain is developed, southern Nevada, like Carlsbad, would reap new science projects.

“The natural progression of Yucca Mountain would be spinoff science work,” he said.

State university officials in Las Vegas wouldn’t comment on that possibility, in order to not undercut the state’s arguments against Yucca Mountain.


But already, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas has won a $3-million federal grant to study technologies to refine spent nuclear fuel, and its faculty hopes the federal government will build a proton accelerator at the Nevada Test Site, near Yucca Mountain, to bleed high-level nuclear waste of its radioactivity.

Carlsbad would like the accelerator project as well.

Carlsbad’s mayor said he is thankful that the materials buried here are much less toxic than what would go to Yucca Mountain.

“Bringing in WIPP was the best decision this city’s ever made,” Forrest said. “But I wouldn’t want a facility here to store highly radioactive waste. There are too many unknowns with that. WIPP is as popular here as Yucca Mountain is unpopular in Las Vegas.”