Welcome to Albuquerque: Nuclear Meltdown Capital of the World


When Ohio’s Shippingport Atomic Power Station opened for business on May 26, 1958, the Atomic Energy Commission advertised it as the dawn of a new era of cheap, clean energy in the United States.

By the mid-1970s, nearly one hundred nuclear facilities had been built, and scores more were on the way. But the unbridled enthusiasm of the 1960s gave way to growing concerns over safety in the 1970s. The authors of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s 1975 “Nuclear Safety Report” raised alarm over the lack of a coordinated plan to deal with the risk of human error or mechanical failure, particularly when combined with the likelihood of tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes. How would a nuclear meltdown actually happen and what would it look like?

A partial answer to that question came in March of 1979 when mechanical failure and human error at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island led to a partial meltdown and the escape of radioactive gases into the environment.

In the wake of the Three Mile Island accident, a large and organized anti-nuclear movement focused critical attention on the very real threat posed by nuclear energy production. The result was an about-face in reactor construction in United States. The annual increase in new nuclear reactor construction prior to the Three Mile Island accident ground to a halt after it.

Partly in response to both the Nuclear Safety Report and Three Mile Island, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) launched an ambitious program to study “severe accident” nuclear meltdowns. The goal was to learn how they happen, how bad they can get, and how to stop them once they’ve started.

Beginning in the 1970s, commercial nuclear plants all over the world sent enriched uranium to Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque where scientists conducted scaled-down nuclear catastrophes by irradiating nuclear fuel pins at temperatures greater than 4,000° F in its Annular Core Research Reactor (ACRR).

Sandia scientists collected data from these nuclear meltdowns, while high-speed cameras recorded the progress. The experiments contributed to the creation of failsafe computer codes based on various worst-case scenarios. Nuclear reactors worldwide reprogrammed their computers based on these codes.

But the legacy of the “severe accident” program lives on in more ways than one. These were real nuclear meltdowns that produced dangerous nuclear wastes. When Sandia began these experiments, there was no permanent facility for the safe storage of radioactive waste. So the NRC allowed on-site storage at commercial nuclear plants and research facilities such as Sandia as a temporary solution until engineered facilities located in deep geologic repositories could be constructed.

Standards for the safe storage of nuclear waste follow procedures based on waste classification. The NRC classifies nuclear waste as either low-level, which refers to clothing, tools, or materials contaminated with radioactive material, or high-level nuclear waste, which refers to the byproducts, such as plutonium, strontium or cesium, produced in nuclear reactors. On-site storage is particularly difficult when dealing with high-level nuclear waste, because the rate of decay for spent nuclear fuel is slow—some of the waste material that comes out of nuclear reactors won’t be safe to handle for hundreds of thousands of years. The only safe storage option for high level wastes is in deep geologic repositories.

The problem was even more difficult for Sandia because the wastes it produced in its “severe accident” experiments did not fit either category. This was not simply high-level waste, but rather the radioactive debris of dozens of nuclear meltdowns. There is no waste category for this material and therefore there are no standards for its safe storage. It never occurred to anyone to create standards for the safe storage of wastes produced in catastrophic core meltdown nuclear accidents.

So Sandia decided to wing it. Based, it seems, more on convenience than science, it buried dozens of radioactive canisters full of meltdown material in vertical holes drilled into shallow, unlined trenches, some of which remain classified, in its existing 2.6-acre Sandia Radioactive Waste Dump, later renamed the Sandia Mixed Waste Landfill (MWL). The dump opened in March of 1959 and for nearly thirty years, until it closed in December of 1988, received as much as 1.5 million cubic feet of radioactive and toxic material.

Sandia MWL aerialphoto
An aerial view of the Sandia Mixed Waste Landfill. The portion to the left is the classified section.

Sandia MWL diagram

Into its open pits less than two miles from the Pueblo of Isleta, Sandia dumped carcinogenic solvents such as tetrachloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethelyene (TCE), and dichlorodifluoromethane (CFC-12). Into its unlined trenches a few hundred feet above the aquifer, it dumped metals like beryllium, cadmium, chromium, nickel, and 281,000 pounds of lead. In the middle of it all, it buried tons of various radioactive elements, including amercium-241, cesium-137, depleted uranium, and more than 100 drums of plutonium, which has a radioactive half-life of 24,100 years.

Looking south at trench F in 1987.
Looking south at trench F in 1987.

Sandia routinely received and studied radioactive material from various US nuclear test sites and proving grounds. All of it found its way into the landfill. They dumped weapons components contaminated by depleted uranium and unknown amounts of radioactive material from the Nevada Test Site, where the US exploded nearly 1,000 nuclear bombs. They landfilled radioactive residue from the Kwajalein Missile Range in Hawaii, where the US tested the MX, Minuteman, and Trident nuclear missiles. And even seven 55-gallon drums of contaminated material from the Three Mile Island meltdown.

All told Sandia dumped tons of more than 100 radioactive elements, carcinogenic organics, and chlorinated solvents into open, shallow, unlined trenches. Some material was landfilled in steel drums, but tons of material was just tossed into the landfill in plastic bags or cardboard boxes. In 1967 the Lab turned MWL into a toxic-radioactive stew when it poured 271,000 gallons of reactor coolant water into the landfill. It’s a flammable stew too; in 1974, the depleted uranium caught fire.

A view of trench D in 1967. Much of the toxic or radiocative wastes were dumped in plastic bags or cardboard boxes.
A view of trench D in 1967. Much of the toxic or radioactive wastes were dumped in plastic bags or cardboard boxes.

So much for the highly engineered or deep geologic repository required by law when storing hazardous or radioactive wastes. But when Sandia closed the landfill in 1989,

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) suddenly had the authority to require just that. According to the Federal Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA), the authority to protect the public from hazardous materials at the landfill fell to NMED. According to the law, the environment department could have forced Sandia to excavate the landfill and remove the wastes or, at the very least, it should have forced Sandia to construct an impermeable liner to keep wastes from leaching into soils and groundwater, install soil gas monitoring wells, and construct an effective network of downgradient groundwater monitoring wells. None of these things happened.

While a network of four groundwater-monitoring wells was installed to the north, west and southeast of the landfill, a 1993 study by NMED revealed that they were placed in the wrong location. While surface water moved to the northwest, groundwater travelled to the southwest, and thus none of the wells could monitor the possible migration of contamination into the aquifer. One of the wells did record elevated levels of chromium, cadmium, and high levels of nickel contamination to the northwest of the landfill. Sandia dismissed those readings, saying that they came from corrosion at the site of the well, not from the landfill, despite the fact that none of the other wells exhibited similar corrosion. In addition, field investigations conducted in 1994 found elevated levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and tritium in soils below the landfill’s unlined trenches. Tritium and VOCs from nuclear waste easily migrate through soils and groundwater. Sandia, however, downplayed any concern, concluding, despite subsequent evidence to the contrary, that the material would decay before ever reaching groundwater.

A 1994 report by the US Environmental Protection Agency identified a series of deficiencies in the groundwater-monitoring network. A 1998 NMED report concluded that the nickel contamination in the aquifer should prompt a broader study of potential risks to local and regional groundwater quality.

Despite RCRA disclosure requirements, none of these troubling issues—not the elevated tritium levels in soils, not the nickel contamination in groundwater, not the misplaced network of monitoring wells—were presented to the community in a 2004 public meeting held in Albuquerque. Even with the evidence of soil and groundwater contamination withheld, public testimony overwhelmingly favored excavating the landfill. But in April of 2005, despite a federal law that prohibits the burial of plutonium-contaminated waste in shallow pits covered in dirt, NMED secretary Ron Curry ordered Sandia to bury the waste in shallow pits covered in dirt.

Sandia’s permit included a “long term monitoring and maintenance plan” that came with a number of conditions, including one that read, “Sandia shall prepare a report every 5 years, re-evaluating the feasibility of excavation and analyzing the continued effectiveness of the selected remedy. The report shall include a review of the documents, monitoring reports and any other pertinent data, and anything additional required by NMED. In each 5-year report, Sandia shall update the fate and transport model for the site with current data, and re-evaluate any likelihood of contaminants reaching groundwater.”

In the nine years since it received its permit from NMED, Sandia has never conducted a comprehensive “fate and transport” computer model that analyzed all the possible sources of groundwater contamination and has not submitted a report analyzing the feasibility of excavation. Despite this, NMED waived the requirement for the five-year report and just this month issued Sandia conditional approval for a Certificate of Completion for its permit.

This brings Sandia one-step closer to a permit that would require “no further action,” reduce monitoring requirements, and allow Sandia to permanently store high-level nuclear waste, intermingled with unknown amounts of carcinogens and volatile compounds, in unlined trenches covered in dirt, forever. And this is an outcome Sandia anticipated as early as 1997. Despite years of official study with public hearings ostensibly designed to weigh the risks and benefits of excavation versus permanent storage, recently acquired internal Sandia memoranda reveal that NMED’s decision to give Sandia a Certificate of Completion may have been a fait accompli all along. According to documents acquired by the watchdog group Citizen Action New Mexico, Sandia managers decided in 1997 that they would never excavate material from the landfill and would instead pursue permanent, on-site storage, despite the fact that they didn’t even have a complete inventory of wastes in the landfill and at that time hadn’t yet conducted comprehensive studies of groundwater contamination. And NMED appears ready to give them that permit. If such a landfill were proposed today it would violate every state and federal law governing the regulation of radioactive and toxic waste management.

Dozens of Sandia representatives attended a public meeting on the permit held last week at the Manzano Mesa Multigenerational Center in Albuquerque. Dave McCoy, the director of Citizen Action New Mexico, was there. McCoy has been a tough critic of Sandia’s plan to keep high-level nuclear wastes on-site. During the meeting he asked Sandia engineer John Cochrane about the elevated levels of toluene and tritium and nickel in soils and groundwater. Cochrane dismissed these issues as unrelated to the landfill. I asked Cochrane how he could be so confident that the toxic and radioactive wastes have never and would not in the future contaminate groundwater. “These are unlined pits holding high-level nuclear wastes, after all.” He paused to consider the question and then said, “I know. It feels wrong.”

Dave McCoy speaking to Sandia representatives at last week's public meeting on Sandia's permit application to permanently store radioactive and toxic wastes in an shallow, unlined dump covered in dirt. Photo by David Correia
Dave McCoy (right) speaking to Sandia representatives at last week’s public meeting on Sandia’s permit application to permanently store radioactive and toxic wastes in a shallow, unlined dump covered in dirt. Photo by David Correia

Eric Nuttall, emeritus professor of Chemical & Nuclear Engineering at the University of New Mexico and an expert on in situ remediation of groundwater, thinks it’s more than just a feeling. “This is no ordinary landfill,” he told me at the meeting. “It’s unlike any other dump in the United States. It’s full of extremely hazardous and highly radioactive materials. In order to protect the environment and human health, it should be excavated and landfilled in a secure, engineered facility. It’s no exaggeration to say that if the material in the landfill were distributed around the world and people were exposed, it would kill everyone on earth.”

Note: A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Weekly Alibi


One comment

  1. The article, Dave, in the Alibi was the best I have seen on anyone trying to explain the nuclear dump out there. Thanks for doing it. Bob

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