The gale-force winds that swept across New Mexico on Friday, driving fires and evacuations, gave Diné residents in a small western New Mexico community an opportunity to demonstrate first hand the danger they live with every day.Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) members were in the Red Water Pond Road community, about 20 minutes northeast of Gallup, to hear local input on a controversial plan to clean up a nearby abandoned uranium mine. It was the first visit anyone could recall by NRC commissioners to the Navajo Nation, where the agency regulates four uranium mills. Chairman Christopher Hanson called the visit historic, and the significance was visible with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and other Navajo officials in attendance. This story originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is republished with permission through a Creative Commons license. As commissioners listened to 20 or so people give testimony over several hours Friday afternoon, high winds battered the plastic sheeting hung on the sides of the Cha’a’oh, or shade house, making it hard for some in the audience of many dozens to hear all that was said. “This is like this everyday,” community member Annie Benally told commissioners, mentioning the dust being whipped around outside by the wind.
A bill clearly aimed at blocking Holtec International from building an underground storage site for spent nuclear fuel in southeastern New Mexico is moving forward. The House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted 5-4 to advance a bill that would ban the storage or disposal of spent nuclear fuel in the state — and would essentially kill Holtec’s plans to build a repository for this high-level radioactive waste in the Carlsbad area. It now will go to the House Judiciary Committee. A key point in the debate was whether the state has the authority to stop the federal government from approving what’s described as an interim storage site to keep the material until a permanent place is created. Some lawmakers and regulators who back House Bill 127 say although the state can’t interfere with how the commission regulates the waste, it can block storage sites that could cause adverse environmental impacts.
IN AUGUST 2016, an inspector from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived at Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana, a nerve center for the U.S. military’s global air combat operations, to conduct a routine look at the base’s handling of its hazardous waste. Barksdale, like many military bases, generates large volumes of hazardous materials, including thousands of pounds of toxic powder left over from cleaning, painting and maintaining airplanes. For years, Barksdale had been sending a portion of its waste to an Ohio company, U.S. Technology Corp., that had sold officials at the base on a seemingly ingenious solution for disposing of it: The company would take the contaminated powder from refurbished war planes and repurpose it into cinderblocks that would be used to build everything from schools to hotels to big-box department stores — even a pregnancy support center in Ohio. The deal would ostensibly shield the Air Force from the liabililty of being a large producer of dangerous hazardous trash. The arrangement was not unique.
Plutonium capable of being used in a nuclear weapon, conventional explosives, and highly toxic chemicals have been improperly packaged or shipped by nuclear weapons contractors at least 25 times in the past five years, according to government documents. While the materials were not ultimately lost, the documents reveal repeated instances in which hazardous substances vital to making nuclear bombs and their components were mislabeled before shipment. That means those transporting and receiving them were not warned of the safety risks and did not take required precautions to protect themselves or the public, the reports say. The risks were discovered after regulators conducted inspections during transit, when the packages were opened at their destinations, during scientific analysis after the items were removed from packaging, or — in the worst cases — after releases of radioactive contaminants by unwary recipients, the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation showed. Only a few, slight penalties appear to have been imposed for these mistakes.