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What is WIPP? Can it withstand fissures and sinkholes opening in Carlsbad?

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The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the nation's only deep geologic repository for "permanent disposal" (oxymoron) of a radioactive waste that is the byproduct of the nation's nuclear defense program. The underground repository, located about 26 miles from Carlsbad, New Mexico, is carved out of a 2,000 ft. thick salt bed.

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WIPP is the nation's only repository for the disposal of nuclear waste known as transuranic, or TRU waste, which is "long-lived" and has to be isolated to protect public health and the environment. It is disposed of 2,150 ft. underground in rooms mined from the salt bed.

Defense-generated TRU waste consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements.

Deep geologic disposal in salt beds was chosen because the salt is "usually free" of flowing water, easily mined, impermeable, and “thought to be” geologically stable. Unfortunately, Carlsbad doesn't currently represent a geologically stable location.

After sinkhole collapses in 2009 and 2012, New Mexico officials became concerned with the condition of the two brine wells near the intersection of U.S. 285 and 62/180. According to one state official, the site is still at risk, with constant, steady readings showing movement in the cavity below the earth. Add to the mix, the massive fissures cutting through Carlsbad and structural cracks in buildings.

Alarms have been placed to monitor sinkhole activity so that authorities will have at least a few hours' warning to evacuate Carlsbad's residents in the event of an imminent cave-in.

A bright yellow sign along the stretch of highway heading through Carlsbad reads "U.S. 285 south subject to sinkhole 1,000 feet ahead," and all the while, radioactive waste from Department of Energy (DOE) sites around the country is being "trucked" to WIPP, over known-to-be unstable roads.

It is said that the massive sinkhole running through the center of town was created by the oil industry. For more than three decades, oil field service companies pumped fresh water into a salt layer more than 400 ft. below the surface and extracted several million barrels of brine to help with drilling.

More food for thought.

Recall the reason that salt beds were chosen for radioactive waste disposal--"because the salt is free of flowing water"--and then read the following:

Authorities say the brine well in Carlsbad is ripe for collapse because of conditions created by drilling down into a layer of natural salt and injecting fresh water into the salt layer. The water dissolves the salt, creating an underground cavity from which salt brine is pumped back to the surface for use in oilfield applications. When the underground cavity is unable to hold the weight above, it becomes unstable (like the sinkholes in Artesia and Loco Hills) and a collapse may occur.

Authorities say that the subsidence of the earth around the collapse might stretch to U.S. 285 (hence the bright yellow sign). The sinkhole in Artesia is estimated to be about 360 feet wide and roughly 145 feet deep, while the Loco Hills sinkhole is estimated at nearly 300 feet with a depth of 165 feet.

Is WIPP a catastrophe waiting to happen? The clock is ticking. Time will tell.

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