A recent radiation leak at America’s only nuclear waste repository threatens the future of waste storage in the country. But leaders in the city of Carlsbad, New Mexico, still want their area to be a destination for America’s radioactive history.
While other locales across the US have fought mightily to prevent the establishment of similar operations, almost all of Carlsbad is sanguine about the storage of nuclear materials just a 40-minute drive from the centre of town.
That confidence has been tested this month after a radiation leak and the initial report 13 workers had tested positive for radioactive contamination.
And as the only permanent storage facility for nuclear waste, problems at WIPP create problems for the larger US nuclear defence complex, including delays of already scheduled shipments from around the country.
But it is the first serious incident in WIPP’s history, and Carlsbad still appears to have confidence, albeit slightly shaken, in the site.
In fact, town officials are hoping their corner of New Mexico can be the home of even more nuclear waste.
The facility, 26 miles (42km) east of the city, looks from the outside like any industrial site, except for the large, empty canisters sitting in the car park.
But 2,150ft (655m) below, WIPP is a cool cavern, with wide pathways cut out of pure salt on every side. Each storage section, known as a panel, is 13ft high, 33ft wide and 300ft long.
WIPP can only take certain types of waste. It must all be from US defence projects and be transuranic – contaminated by elements beyond uranium in the periodic table in which radioactivity is particularly long-lived. Most of its waste is solid: radioactive gloves, tools and debris.
About 1,000 people in Carlsbad, a city of 26,000, are employed by WIPP or related contractors, and the site’s annual budget is about $215m (£129m) per year. While oil and potash have been booming again in south-eastern New Mexico, they have busted before. WIPP promised a stable economic base for lifelong residents.
“Those are our high-paying jobs, they support our baseball teams, they are part of our community,” says Eddy County Commissioner Susan Crockett, who represents Carlsbad.
Before the leak, most residents told the BBC that the nuclear storage didn’t worry them – or even cross their minds. But now there are signs of increased concern.
A town hall meeting with WIPP officials about the incident attracted about 300 residents. The local newspaper, the Carlsbad Current-Argus, reported a sharp rise in appointments for people wanting whole body scans for radiation.