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"A Visit to WIPP"

     Adela and I were in the Carlsbad area and wanted to tour the
Waste Isolation Pilot Project facility.  Our hosts succeeded in
adding us to a tour that had already been scheduled, for the
Audubon Traveling Institute.  We were pleased to be mixed in with
a group of college and graduate students, based in Vermont, who
travel in a specially fitted bus and do their studying on site.
     The tour took more than four hours, with special lectures
for the university students.  Our first impressions of WIPP could
only be called positive.  The technology is impressive, but then
it ought to be, for $2 billion.  The morale and the sincerity of
the workers is also admirable.  David Acevedo, former copper
miner from north of Tucson, has come for better wages.  Steven
LongChase, former teacher of his own Lakota people in South
Dakota, was called to the job by the DOE because of his skills in
public relations.  Mike McMiner, a professional miner with varied
experience in various places, claims to feel guilty about his
former work, "harming the earth, and now I have this chance to
make it up."
     Three things became clear, thanks to the experience of being
right there on the site.
     [1] The long view, and the generalist's view, are made
almost impossible, because of government compartmentalization. 
Sometimes we call it specialization.  Congress issued a "mandate"
to the DOE:  "Find a safe way to store nuclear waste
underground."  The DOE has tried to obey that mandate, and WIPP
is the result.  DOE employees do not question, do not think
about, the ongoing commitment of the Congress to nuclear weapons. 
They cannot ponder such cross-bureau questions as this one, from
one of the college students:  "Doesn't WIPP allow the government
to continue to upgrade, make, test, and prepare to use nuclear
weapons, because now we supposedly know what to do with the waste
produced?"  Logic-tight compartments have formed inside
individual human brains, and then the phenomenon spreads,
especially when wages are good.
     [2] The staff at WIPP are as committed to safety as they
are, or at least repeatedly say they are, partly because of the
delays in opening the facility which are the result of the work
of groups, like Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping
[CARD] and Citizens Concerned for Nuclear Safety [CCNS], that
oppose the opening of WIPP, "until we're sure it's safe."  Some
opponents think it cannot ever be made really safe, because of
karst cracks in the salt, the presence of brine and the nature of
plutonium itself, with its half-life of 25,000 years.  The staff
gave false statements about that half-life, trying to link it to
the 10,000 years that DOE is now promising to keep the plutonium
"out of the environment."  But the staff at WIPP, in contrast to
DOE's and Westinghouse' past records at Rocky Flats and Hanford,
are very touchy about safety.
     [3] The technology and the admirable character of the
personnel involved do not change the basic philosophy behind
WIPP, which is as flawed as ever.  Nuclear weapons are bad for
everybody, including their possessors, and until there is no
budget that allows for their storage and prospective use, we must
assume that WIPP is part of that ongoing waste of effort and
ingenuity and money.  Also, burying a serious problem, out of
sight and out of mind, into a situation from which it cannot be
recovered, is never a good idea.  Almost any other plan would be
better.  Putting the plutonium on the strawberries would be
better, because then we would know that we haven't yet solved
this problem; whereas WIPP may allow some or most of us to
believe that we have taken care of it.  Leaving the stuff where
it is has one good positive effect -- it shuts down the
facilities where they used to make nuclear weapons, as at Rocky
Flats and Hanford.
     Every able-bodied citizen should do the WIPP tour, before
they start placing transuranic waste there.  The WIPP personnel
are not "the enemy" at all.  Plutonium, human "hubris," and our
collective human foolishness are the enemy.
    A fantasy scenario came to mind, as we drove away from the
WIPP site.  WIPP claims to be the solution to a national problem. 
One wonders what would happen if a mad inventor came up with
something that really was a solution, not just a burying of the
problem.  Some kind of laser-type ray beam, let's say, that
speeds up greatly the rate of radioactive decay.  Just turn it on
and point the beam at the unstable substance.  Uranium turns to
lead while you watch.  Plutonium decays over a reasonable time
period which can be monitored.  That would be a solution, and
research should be done to find it.
     Try to imagine the reaction of the managers and employees of
DOE, when someone does discover that.  Consternation will result. 
A real budget crisis!  The manager of WIPP calls the local
senator.  "We're worried.  All the talk about how much money has
gone into this hole in the ground.  All the threats of budget
cuts.  All your talk about what-all the country can't afford... 
A lot of people are depending on this budget.  We don't need some
inventor, some honest-to-god solution, to pull the rug out from
under us."
     And Joe Lobbyist would soon be on the line with the same
Senator:  "We're hearing about a madman, acting alone, who has
come up with a Final Solution to the problem of nuclear waste. 
What do you know about it?"
     And the Senator replies:  "He may not be really very mad. 
He does seem to be acting alone.  His invention seems to work, on
a very small scale.  He's a long way from solving the all-
pervasive problem of nuclear waste."
     Lobbyist:  "What do you mean, all-pervasive?"
     Senator:  "Well, it's everywhere.  Not just in nuclear
weapons facilities and laboratories, but in power plants,
hospitals, sewers --"
     Lobbyist:  "Nuclear waste, and its clean-up, is an integral
part of the American way of life.  We don't want a madman messing
it up.  So, here's what you do.  Get that invention away from
him.  Break into his little lab, wherever it is, and smash things
and steal all his records.  We expect results.  Don't forget
who's paying you.  We expect results.  We demand solutions, our
kind of solutions, not some fool solution that does away with our
means of livelihood altogether.
     Senator:  "Yes, Sir."
     Lobbyist:  "No madman is going to spoil our American way of
life, by really cleaning up this mess.  What if he turned that
thing on the nuclear weapons stockpile?  He could disarm the only
surviving super-power!  What if he aimed it at our network of
nuclear power plants?  He'd shut down dishwashers and air-
conditioners all across this land, making it no different from
the rest of the surface of the earth!  What would happen to the
stock market then?
     Senator:  "Ah, well --"
     Lobbyist:  "Solutions, Senator!  We demand solutions!  This
fear of nuclear waste, and leukemia, and all that, is the best
money-maker we've ever had.  We don't want some idiot citizen
inventor cleaning it up.
     Senator:  "Yes, Boss."
* * *
Copyright © 1998 Harry Willson

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