America’s Nuclear Waste: A Forgotten Ticking Timebomb

Journalist Paul DeRienzo discusses his investigation into widespread nuclear disposal sites leaking radiation into the environment

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Story Transcript

SHARMNINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Barrels of nuclear waste at the isolation plant in New Mexico could be a ticking time bomb. Waste from our nuclear weapons has been piling up for about 75 years now. Our next guest, Paul DeRienzo, has written an investigative report on what he calls failed disposal of the waste from three quarters of a century of weapons development.

Joining us now from New York is Paul DeRienzo. Paul is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to the Villager newspaper, and WhoWhatWhy.org, and also Pacifica Radio. Paul, thank you so much for joining us.

PAUL DERIENZO, FREELANCE JOURNALIST: Thank you, Sharmini.

PERIES: So Paul, give us a sense of the facility in New Mexico and the explosion that had happened, and actually what kitty litter had to do with it all.

DERIENZO: Well, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the final disposal location for defense-related nuclear waste that was produced by the United States beginning with the Manhattan Project in 1942. The idea was to bury this waste, some of which has to be kept isolated from humanity from at least a quarter of a million years, 2,000 feet underground in the New Mexico desert near Carlsbad, New Mexico, south of the capital of New Mexico.

And the, what happened was that about a year ago in 2014 a barrel of waste, it’s stored in barrels, exploded. And it was what the Secretary of the Department of Energy, Moniz, Mr. Moniz, called a thermal event. In other words, it heated up to over 1600 degrees, and radiation monitors started going off, and it was discovered that plutonium, which is a deadly carcinogen had escaped. In small amounts, but detectable amounts for many, many miles around the plant.

And considering that this plant was supposed to remain isolated from humanity, as it says, Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for 250,000 years, and it’s only about a dozen years since the plant was first opened, that we’re already leaking radiation into the environment. So we have a serious problem here that might cost about $500 million to fix, and which then was later discovered to, unlike what the original description of the incident, that one barrel of waste was involved, in fact maybe as many as 500 barrels of waste were involved.

PERIES: Paul, tell us about where this waste is coming from and what are other installations across the country that might be housing this type of waste.

DERIENZO: The waste in particular that we’re talking about came from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Los Alamos is the flagship of the American Nuclear Weapons Complex, which is the system of laboratories, factories, and other facilities that create the nuclear weapons that make up the United States’ nuclear arsenal. And it was sent from there in–it was supposed to be very carefully monitored, and we were supposed to know everything that was in all of these barrels. It was a requirement by the state of New Mexico to allow the United States government to use these facilities to store nuclear waste.

However, it came to the attention through the report on the incident, the incident report, that an error had been made in which kitty litter was used as an absorbent in these barrels, which also contained TRU, what they call TRU waste, or trans-uranic waste, which are items that are contaminated with elements that are beyond uranium in the periodic table of the elements. And they’re mostly clothing, tools, glove boxes, other detritus that was created by 75 years of nuclear weapons production that were contaminated with these elements. Enough to fill, depending on who you talk to, one or two Empire State Buildings if they were empty. And this is then packed into barrels and these barrels are then sent to WIPP for storage. However, some of this waste is liquid or liquefied, and when they put the kitty litter in there to absorb the liquid, they were told to use inorganic kitty litter.

Now, we’re not a thousand percent sure of what happened here, but it looks like there was a typographical error. And putting inorganic, one word, kitty litter was misinterpreted as in organic kitty litter, two words. And so they went to a, my understanding, they went to a local outlet and purchased bags of Swheat brand organic kitty litter. They packaged it in the barrels. The barrels were then stored. And then they should have known that that, because they should know everything that’s in these barrels, they should have known that this exact combination would create a chemical form of a plastic explosive. That is, the formula which is already known, so that should have popped up on their computers because they knew what they were putting in there. If they had known what they were supposed to have known what they were putting into these barrels.

So basically they in the process of packing the barrels created a radioactive plastic explosive. And one went off and caused an entire area as big as a football field to be contaminated, which is not supposed to happen, endangering at least 32 workers including, I think, ten or a dozen workers were internally contaminated. Very dangerous to actually absorb inside your body plutonium, which is a potent carcinogen when you absorb it inside your body. And there was a fire, and now this plant is going to be closed for many years.

PERIES: And in your article you refer to all of this as a coverup of mounting problems encountered in modernizing the United States’ nuclear weapons arsenal. What did you mean by that?

DERIENZO: Well, the information has been very slow in coming and there’s very little information. There has been an incident report, but it was the state environmental secretary of New Mexico who was the one who told us that it was not one barrel that was potentially involved, but 500 barrels. That did not come directly to the public from the Department of Energy.

PERIES: And so are you going to continue your work in this area, and can we come back to you to make sure that we cover this story in an ongoing way?

DERIENZO: Yes. Part of this story is that this waste–some of this waste I write about in this story, which is on Who What Why, originated in a place called West Valley, New York, about 30 miles south of Buffalo, New York, where a waste storage facility, 3,300 acre waste storage facility, was created by then-governor Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s to make the state of New York a leader in nuclear fuel reprocessing, taking the waste from nuclear power plants and reprocessing it.

That business collapsed, and New York became the proud owner of 6,000 gallons of highly radioactive nuclear waste, which was supposed to be sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant but now has no future as far as being sent there, at least for the foreseeable next few years. And is leaking its contents, has been exposed to be leaking its contents, radioactive contents, into the Great Lakes, and that there’s a plume of strontium and other, cesium and other radioactive elements that are traveling underneath the ground towards, closer and closer towards the Great Lakes as we speak.

PERIES: Paul, thank you so much for joining us today, and we’re going to be following this story. I hope you join us again.

DERIENZO: Thank you very much.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.