A Sin of Omission: Nuclear Power Plants Are Related to N.M.’s Atomic Story

August 31st, 2011 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

Earlier this summer, the Associated Press, of which the Albuquerque Journal is a member-subscriber, released a four–part series taking a highly critical look at the U.S. nuclear energy industry.

Each of the stories AP released between June 20 and 24 was lengthy, and could have individually filled a Sunday Dimension section of the local daily. It could be argued that the Journal did not have room to run the series, unless it was summarized in a single short story that invited readers to view the series online. And it could be argued that New Mexico has no large-scale commercial nuclear plants, although PNM owns 10 percent of one in Arizona.

Whatever the reason, the Journal did not run this significant series, in print or online.

I was reminded of this not-so-surprising omission when on Aug. 27 the Journal buried on the bottom corner of C2 a short story about the previous day’s release of the report revealing National Nuclear Security Administration plans to build a multi-billion dollar plutonium laboratory in Los Alamos “despite concerns about rising costs and seismic safety.”

The plutonium story got better play in the Journal’s North edition, which ran a longer version than what appeared in the Albuquerque-area paper (and the cyber version is topped with the North masthead). It’s possible the story was deemed not so important to Albuquerque metro area readers.

But what happens in Los Alamos is becoming increasingly important to the metro area, as storm runoff from LA canyons and recent fires raise questions about nuclear contaminants getting into the air and water. In fact, Dr. Robert M. Bernstein of N.M. Physicians for Social Responsibility advocated in a Journal column (Aug. 25) for immediate testing of water at diversion sites on the Rio Grande because of that runoff. (This is one column that deserves a follow-up news story. Readers want to know: Do his claims have merit?)

Minimizing the plutonium lab story in Albuquerque and omitting the nuclear power series both leave the Journal open to speculation that it is reluctant to showcase stories critical of any part of the nuclear stream. And while New Mexico doesn’t have a full-scale nuclear plant, nuclear power is related to the state’s atomic story.

The AP series – a broad, in-depth overview of nuclear power history– alleged that power plant oversight has weakened in recent years. Its four parts can be found online via a number of media outlets:

The series is especially relevant in light of this year’s radiation leaks in Japan after two extraordinary natural events: an earthquake and tsunami. (The Nuclear Energy Institute has compiled its own fact sheet in response to the AP series, which can be found here.)

Meanwhile, northern New Mexico and southern Colorado experienced an earthquake earlier this month and, according to an article in The (Edgewood) Independent by Wally Gordon, the state’s primary seismic research center predicts there will be more .

Potential seismic activity is why Friday’s NNSA report on the plutonium lab at Los Alamos is worthy of better placement than a spot at the bottom of C2.

Similarly, back in May, it was arguably big news when an Albuquerque judge dismissed a lawsuit by activists who had tried to halt the plutonium lab pending environmental studies. At the time of the ruling, it seemed the story was worthy of A1, which is where it played in northern New Mexico papers. (At a minimum, it was worth a small A1 box referring readers to C1.) But Journal editors did not refer it and merely put it at the top of C1. Perhaps they were trying to show restraint.

Similarly, coverage was relegated to C2 when a House committee put the plutonium lab on hold pending resolution of questions about earthquake safety. (Again, the story got better play in the North edition.)

On the other hand, the Journal is quick to champion the nuclear industry when it can. After an assistant U.S. Energy Secretary suggested in April at a Hobbs symposium that modular nuclear reactors would be perfect for New Mexico, the Journal got on board with the editorial “Reactors a Perfect Fit?” In its editorial, the official position of the paper, the Journal said:

Smaller might be better – and safer.

And it concluded:

Arid New Mexico, with its wide open spaces that could benefit from localized power sources, could become a commercial nuclear player.

To be fair, New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman had gone on record in favor of small nuclear reactors back in 2009.

Then there’s the paper’s approach to nuclear waste. A year before the Hobbs symposium, in March 2010, the Journal rightly gave A1 display to Michael Coleman’s story about former Sen. Pete Domenici’s Carlsbad visit invitation to fellow members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

Domenici, while accurately described in the story as one of the nations’ “staunchest advocates for expanding nuclear power,” nonetheless was coy in the interview, saying he wasn’t necessarily advocating expansion of WIPP.

But he didn’t have to advocate. Four days later, a Journal editorial did it for him. Headlined “Time Right To Look At WIPP for Greater Uses,” the editorial left no doubt the Journal had more than field hearings in mind in looking at more WIPP uses. The editorial (which also appeared in the Mountain View Telegraph, which is the source of this link) concluded:

Not many really want a nuke dump in their backyard, but Carlsbad leaders welcomed WIPP in the past and now are eager for jobs and economic activity.

As the commission starts its work, it’s time for scientific research to have the upper hand over political considerations in assessing whether WIPP could be an answer to a problem most people don’t want to think about.

What the Journal editorial failed to mention was that in allowing WIPP in the first place, New Mexico – with its congressional delegation a part of these critical discussions – extracted from the federal government its promise that WIPP would not be expanded beyond its original federal waste mission.

It took N.M. Environment Secretary Ron Curry to remind Journal editorial writers of this when he weighed in with a column a few days after the editorial. For those who were around in the late 1970s during those tumultuous months before WIPP’s approval (and I covered it for three years, up to the day WIPP was cleared to dig its first shaft), Curry’s piece summed up what many of us have been thinking since Domenici in 2008 plunged into his campaign to add to the mission at WIPP:

Changing the mission at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad by allowing high level nuclear waste at the site runs contrary to the federal government’s promise to New Mexicans more than a decade ago. That promise was that the facility should dispose only of transuranic waste created by production of nuclear weapons.

And Domenici, of course, was part of New Mexico’s delegation when that promise was made.

New Mexico’s contributions to atomic history, significant before WIPP’s approval, are even greater now. Even before the state had established its “nuclear alley” near Hobbs with last year’s opening of a uranium enrichment plant, which last week announced it was doubling its capacity, uranium had been mined around Gallup and Grants, leaving its radioactive tailings as a byproduct (and a massive tailings spill at Church Rock). The Manhattan Project left potential carcinogens in canyon water at Los Alamos. A wasteland remains where the first nuclear bomb was detonated at White Sands. Other than a couple of small reactors at science and educational facilities, New Mexico has yet to build a nuclear power plant. But it has been discussed off and on over the years (both the modular and the full-scale kind) and PNM owns a share of the Palo Verde plant in Arizona. And New Mexico is playing a role in both the beginning and end phases of the nuclear stream.

The good news is, science writer John Fleck is on top of the story each time New Mexico is eyed for more radioactive waste. In April of this year, he wrote that three of seven sites under consideration for power plant waste are in New Mexico, pointing out in that reportage that WIPP is not legally permitted to accept Greater Than Class C waste. (This is old nuclear power plant waste that Congress in 1985 decided should be the responsibility of the federal government.) Changing the prohibition at WIPP, Fleck quoted an official as saying, would have to come from Congress. The Journal ran that story on D1.

With waste routinely traveling to WIPP on highways upgraded specifically to reduce the risks – and significantly, there have been no accidents – WIPP has become part of the landscape. And with regard to WIPP, most coverage has been relegated to the routine, borne out by the fact that in 2009, the Journal didn’t cover the five-year recertification hearings of WIPP, settling for short stories announcing the process coming up and the resulting decision to recertify. The hearings were covered by the Weekly Alibi.

But as it should be, in that same month, a proposal taking shape to build a “twin” nuclear waste site in the area of WIPP, was covered by Fleck and given A1 play. At the time, all eyes were on New Mexico because the federal government was looking for an alternative to Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. The story hit Page One because Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration countered “with an emphatic ‘no’.”

Fortunately, Fleck is a solid reporter and aware of background:

As the only deep underground radioactive waste disposal site, WIPP is often described as “the only drain in the bathtub” when it comes to the nation’s nuclear waste, and it frequently comes up in discussions of possible destinations for waste other than the plutonium contamination for which it was originally built.

State officials, afraid its mission would be expanded to take other, more highly radioactive waste once it was open, insisted on tough restrictions in federal law to prevent that from happening.

In a statement issued last week, the Department of Energy said it would abide by those restrictions. “Legislation and legally binding documents specifically prohibit … other waste forms from being disposed of at WIPP,” the statement said.

New Mexicans — residents of a state that has provided much of the fuel for the nuclear industry, a state  that is being eyed constantly for disposal of long-lived radioactive waste — deserve to be informed about all stages of the nuclear industry, which includes the pros – and cons – of nuclear power plants as well. The Journal should have provided its readers with the AP series, even if only online.

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