'WIPP Is the Final Shaft" has been scrawled on an adobe wall in Santa Fe, indicating the writer's opposition to WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation's only underground nuclear waste storage site. According to the New York Times, the plant has been carved into salt caves near Carlsbad, N.M. What kind of waste is isolated there? Plutonium laden gloves, tools, all the paraphernalia that is used to build the plutonium components for nuclear bombs.

The leak began on Feb. 14.

"There's been radioactivity from nuclear waste released on the surface into the environment," said Don Hancock, Director of the Nuclear Waste Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center, in an interview with Common Dreams. "This was never supposed to happen. That's a very serious thing. We don't know yet what caused this release, or how much has been released."

According to Scott Kovac, Operations and Research Director for Nuclear Watch New Mexico: "At WIPP, there are 4 ways for air to get to the surface — the Exhaust Shaft, the Salt Shaft, the Air Intake Shaft, and the Waste Handling Shaft. When radioactive contamination is detected, airflow is directed to the Exhaust Shaft as its filter is put into place. This shaft has the only filter and monitors on any of the shafts. WIPP officials claim that it was a monitor in Panel 7 that detected radiation and set into action the sending of all the air to the Exhaust Shaft. The Panel 7 monitor is around 2000 feet from the shafts."


On Wednesday, tests for 13 workers at the plant showed they had received radioactive contamination. "It is premature to speculate on the health effects of these preliminary results or any treatment that may be needed," Joe Franco, manager of the US Energy Department field office that oversees the plant, said in a statement.

As the nuclear power industry searches for a repository for used fuel rods from nuclear power plants, WIPP has recently been considered as a possibility even though this has never been its mission. The Department of Energy pushes to create more nuclear components for modifying existing bombs. The National Journal reports that 66,500 nuclear warheads have been produced in the US since 1945; 5,900 of them have been dissembled. That's a lot of plutonium. A lot of possible deaths.

Is this the final shaft? Help us to push back.

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center's "Peace Train" column runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.