What a waste:
How can our state be a real attraction if it's a nuke dump?

Poor New Mexico. We spend less money on tourism than surrounding states and yet depend mightily on its revenues.

Almost half of Santa Fe's economy depends on arts- and culture-related businesses.

And yet, the state Department of Energy is once again pointing its bony finger at our fair state, looking to dump more nuclear waste.

Is New Mexico being a cultural mecca compatible with it also being a nuclear junkyard? How many conventioneers and travelers would risk New Mexico's "glow factor"?

The secrecy surrounding nuclear waste in New Mexico is like a hardened silo. Facts are scarce, rumors swirl, and any suspected health dangers are immediately pooh-poohed by the experts.

Secrecy like that is bad for business. But it doesn't require secret intelligence to put 2 and 2 together. The state's two economic hot spots, Albuquerque and Santa Fe, are cheek by jowl with the bastions of Cold War nuclear research and development, Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

It's public knowledge there's probably large but undisclosed amounts of nuclear waste buried in both sites. We know that plutonium from Los Alamos is appearing in wells near Santa Fe and that the Mix Waste Landfill at Sandia Labs, up hill from the South Valley, is considered so dangerous that its 100,000 cubic feet of contents can't be moved.

We've heard suspicions that Sandia Labs and environs have perhaps hundreds of waste dumps, and that the Los Alamos area is home to many more.

But even if we don't know all the details about the nuclear waste problem in New Mexico, we do know about waste at other Cold War nuclear development and production sites and can make reasonable analogies to our own.

We know the desperation of World War II and the Cold War made the national labs careless, if not to say cavalier, with nuclear waste.

Take Hanford, Wash., for instance. Although on a very different cale and with a different mission from the Los Alamos and Sandia labs, Hanford today is a radioactive nightmare with l,700 waste sites and as many as 500 contaminated buildings.

There's also 53 million gallons of radioactive nitric acid used in reprocessing spent uranium fuel rods, much of which is contained in single-shell underground tanks that are leaking in a plume headed for the Columbia River.

Nuclear watchdogs in New Mexico worry that the DOE will try to reclassify the radioactive acid so it could be transported and stored at WIPP near Carlsbad.

While much is known about the Hanford site, very little is known about nuclear waste at the Los Alamos and Sandia labs.

But none of this speaks well for doing normal business, or living normal lives, if New Mexico should become a target for even more nuclear waste than we have now.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
July 27, 2007