A local Carlsbad man, right, greets Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz after Moniz arrived at Carlsbad to talk about the W[auth] aste Isolation Pilot Plant. (Zach Ponce Photo)
By Zach Ponce
CARLSBAD — More than a dozen Carlsbad locals carrying signs reading “Carlsbad supports WIPP” welcomed Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to the city before his town hall on Monday evening at the Leo Sweet Center to address the recent truck fire and radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
First Christian Church Pastor Dave Rogers helped organize the welcoming crowd at the Cavern City Air Terminal as a show of support for Moniz and the rest of the federal agency as they continue to recover from February incidents that have caused the nuclear waste disposal facility to remain closed for six months. Rogers was joined by many local officials to greet Moniz who flew to Carlsbad on New Mexico Airlines after a morning meeting in Santa Fe.
“I want the secretary to see that this community is behind WIPP,” Rogers said last week. “The idea is to have a large presence and stand in solidarity because this is one of the things that we can truly get behind and make a difference.”
Moniz will tour the nation’s only nuclear waste disposal facility on Tuesday morning before holding a media conference scheduled for 11 a.m. at WIPP.
WIPP opened in 1999 and disposes transuranic waste, commonly referred to as “TRU,” into the Permian-age salt bedrock 2,150 feet below ground. Most of the waste WIPP receives is primarily low-level, solid materials such as discarded tools and cloths used in the manufacturing of Cold War-era nuclear weapons.
Officials said WIPP employs about 1,200 people including contractors and has an annual budget of more than $200 million.
A truck used to haul salt below ground in the north mine caught fire on Feb. 5, forcing immediate evacuations of all workers to the surface. Six employees were treated for smoke inhalation at Carlsbad Medical Center and discharged the same day.
On the evening of Feb. 14, a radiation leak was detected below ground in WIPP’s south mine.
An unknown chemical reaction caused an explosion inside of a waste drum packaged and shipped from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Trace amounts of americium and plutonium were detected about a half mile outside of the facility in the outside air.