For more than 20 years, nuclear waste in the United States has been stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico. The waste is placed deep inside large salt caves. Trucks usually bring several shipments a week of materials contaminated with radioactive elements from South Carolina, Idaho and other areas.
Now, shipments to the plant will come almost to a complete stop as the U.S. deals with the new coronavirus crisis. National laboratories and defense sites in the United States are carrying out only those operations considered “mission critical.”
Officials at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant warned state officials in a letter that more time would be needed for inspections. They added that work would either be decreased or that they would take measures to make sure workers keep their distance from one another.
Donavan Mager is a spokesman for Nuclear Waste Partnership, which runs the plant. He told the Associated Press, “This action is being taken out of an abundance of caution for the safety of employees and the community.”
The same thing is happening at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The once-secret city in northern New Mexico became famous for being the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Most employees there are working away from the area.
Some work related to cleanup will continue, such as radiological studies and inspections of harmful waste storage areas. Workers will also keep watch of an early warning system designed to protect drinking water supplies.
In Washington state, visitors are no longer permitted at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Public meetings at the site have been canceled.
The number of employees there has decreased to the “absolute minimum.” The employees are those needed to run safety and security programs and keep technology systems in operation for those working at home.
Officials at these and other sites say their decisions are guided by state and federal public health orders. The aim is to get people to stay home and limit contact with others to ease the growing number of cases and deaths related to COVID-19.
Worker safety is always a top priority, said U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell. She and others pushed for more money and federal action to speed up the nation’s cleanup program during a congressional meeting in early March.
“We are fighting to make sure workers and their families are taken care of during this crisis and that workers have the resources they need to meet cleanup goals when they are able to safely return to their jobs,” she told The Associated Press in an email.
The Trump administration’s proposed budget for the U.S. Energy Department includes nearly $27 billion.
Most of that money would go toward nuclear security work that includes restarting production of parts used inside nuclear weapons. Less than 25 percent of that would be used for cleanup of 16 sites in 11 states.
The federal government has agreements with several states to reach certain cleanup goals. Officials note that the Energy Department’s environmental managers are considering the possible effects on current projects as the virus spreads.
Jay Coghlan is executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. He said, “The coronavirus pandemic demonstrates why we should get cleanup done once and for all…the radioactive and toxic wastes that we leave behind last longer than our recorded history. We should be acting now.”
U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich said worker health should remain the main concern. But they noted that increased funding for environmental management could help support jobs and speed up cleanup in the future.
I’m Jonathan Evans.
Susan Montoya Bryan reported on this story for the Associated Press. Jonathan Evans adapted this story for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in This Story
abundance – n. a large quantity; plenty
contaminated – adj. made unfit for use by the introduction of unwholesome or undesirable elements; soiled, stained, corrupted, or infected by contact or association
priority – n. something that is more important than other things and that needs to be done or dealt with first