LETHAL LEGACY: The US wants to bury SC’s plutonium stockpile forever. Its new home isn’t sure it wants it.

WIPP was supposed to be a demonstration for the rest of the country, a test run to see if nuclear waste could be buried in salt elsewhere.

It wasn’t meant to become America’s only nuclear repository — “pilot plant” is in its name — yet today it is. Watchdogs say that by tabbing thousands of barrels of plutonium waste to go there, the Energy Department is reshaping the mine’s purpose.
“What it (implies) is quite dramatic expansion of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant or another WIPP-like facility somewhere,” said Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, another watchdog group.

BY: [email protected] postandcourier.com

In the time it will take for South Carolina’s stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium to decay, you could repeat most of human history, starting back in the Stone Age.

By the time its byproducts lose the explosive potential to be used in nuclear weapons, some 7 billion years will have passed. The Earth itself will have doubled in age, and then some.

The U.S. government will officially decide in the next few years where the plutonium — the metal used to trigger nuclear weapons — will spend that eternity. And when it does, it will ask another part of the country to bear a profound burden: to house thousands of barrels filled with scraps of the Cold War and America’s nuclear arms race, a legacy that may well outlast our civilization.

That question will soon be posed to New Mexico, where the U.S. Department of Energy has excavated cavernous vaults deep below the ruddy soil in the state’s southeastern corner. The government hopes it will eventually hold tons of plutonium it has decided it no longer needs — enough to build a few thousand bombs the size of the one dropped over Nagasaki, Japan.

If New Mexico says yes, the Energy Department will bury some 20,000 steel drums deep underground there, in a ribbon of salt as thick as Charleston’s Ashley River is wide.

If it says yes, trucks will carry the plutonium load by load down Interstate 20 for the next three decades, and workers will lower it almost half a mile underground, where it will await its final fate: the mine’s slow collapse, and salt entombing it forever.

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