Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Angela Martinez

© Copyright 2012 by Angela Martinez 


Photo of a zebra swallowtail butterfly.

“Let’s go for a night walk,” my dad said one summer night. I had never walked at night in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The desert at night is forbidding because of what is crawling or slithering around. I didn’t want to step on a rattlesnake or get attacked by a coyote. “No” I said, out of fear. “Get your shoes on, I have a flashlight.”

We walked underneath the stars alongside the dirt path of my aunt and uncle’s neighborhood. They live about 25 minutes from the downtown plaza. Their adobe community is called Eldorado. I saw the mountains illuminated by the light of the moon that night. I felt many little eyes watching us walk underneath the waxing gibbous and stars. We finally passed a few adobe houses and my fear started to leave me. That fear was eventually tucked away in the pit of my stomach and it didn’t return. I’ve always worried a little too much, for no good reason either. The night air greeted my sunburnt skin making it feel cool on my hands and face. I remember I needed a big sweater and long jeans and I didn’t dare wear sandals. That day, I remember lounging underneath the shades, my aunt Pricilla gracefully floated around the house, pulling the blinds and shades to block out the heat. Santa Fe is significantly hotter during the day than at night. At dusk, our family checks the house. Scorpions are another danger to watch out for in the desert. More danger creeps beneath the beauty and the mystery of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The Spanish named this specific mountain range, Blood of Christ. The surreal sunsets brighten the skin of your kin, to a brilliant acrylic red. These mountains and open space are home to animals and people. The area is also a highway plot to nuclear energy waste plants. The waste sits in a cooling pool for years and then is transported into vessels out to seclusion. Oversized vehicles travel the isolate area, down major interstate highways, with the cooled waste. On our night walk, we talked nothing about nuclear energy waste. We talked about the tribal people of the land. We imagined the Anasazi Indians of New Mexico and the arrival of Spanish settlers. We talked about Bandelier and the cave dwellers long before the Spaniards appeared. The Natives hunted and moved when a drought hit their area, their Nomadic way of life allowed them to survive off the land.

“What is going to happen if scientists are wrong about storing nuclear energy?” My dad asked me this a few months after we’d visited Santa Fe in November 2011. “Well, it’s going to be a big disaster.” I replied back over the phone. The nuclear waste worries my father. The U.S. has been lucky thus far considering all of the chances we are taking storing nuclear energy on fault lines. During my most recent telephone conversation with my father, we talked a great deal about thermodynamics, we aren’t scientists, but we both worry. Maybe it’s genetic or cultural, who knows. Sustainability, Sustainability, Sustainability! Those are the most common words I’ve heard in my geography, chemistry, and political science general studies. Humans convert energy into other sources of energy that are most of the time, harmful to the planet. Energy is never destroyed though, it has to go somewhere, or change its chemical state. I thought about our conversation and decided to look at all of the places where nuclear energy waste is stored in the U.S. The main nuclear energy waste storage plant is in the Yucca Mountains of Nevada. Scientists chose this area because the fault is still inactive and its the driest part of Nevada. According to the Southwest Research and Information Center, “There are 33 known geologic faults at or in the near vicinity of the Yucca Mountain site. In the past 20 years, there have been over 600-recorded events of Magnitude 2.5 or greater within 50 miles of the site, the largest of which was a Magnitude 5.6 earthquake in 1992, known as the Little Skull Mountain earthquake. It was centered about 8 miles from the site, causing damage to DOE's Yucca Mountain project office at the Nevada Test Site (NTS).” The earth is still alive. She works in mysterious ways.

In my attempt to make a connection to all of the stagnant waste, I think scientists are coming up with only temporary solutions. The chemicals are sedentary in a cylinder, awaiting natural disaster. Nuclear energy is supposed to be cleaner than coal. However, last year when nuclear reactors had a meltdown in Japan this infected wildlife and people. Nuclear power plant workers were exposed to radiation and I felt for the Japanese people. They were exposed to the chemicals and this immediately caused illness. I wouldn’t eat seafood for months. Cancer and disease are all a result of the way humans react to their environment. The additives in processed foods are a result of humans and their distance with their connection directly to the earth. Cancers remain packaged in gas stations, labeled, “White Powdered Doughnuts.” Our earth has evolved and so have we. And this is why the tiniest flow of groundwater exposed to radiation can create a tragedy.

The desert is one of those places where the self transcends. The person immersed in desolation becomes closer to the inner self and the world around them. My encounters with the desert each time defined my relationship with nature. The desert also defined a long distance relationship I’ve tried to maintain with my family and my roots. The dirt defines an unspoken relationship I want to maintain with the Native Americans. Apart of myself lies beneath the blistering desert sun. There’s a child within my unconscious, anxiously waiting to be sent into the wilderness for seven days to survive off of the land. To let it know that I know it breathes as I do. I think about the land that the people once lived off of. I think about the desert a lot. I don’t live in New Mexico but I have family in the desert. I spent a lot of my childhood with my family there. The kids would make their goal to go out in the woods near my uncle’s adobe home and find clean water to play in. The mountains of New Mexico are different from the flatness of the high desert. Water is abundant in mountain terrain. Unless a drought devastated the land, we found water. Often we were successful. We would hunt the woods for water like the little native children once did years before us. Running one by one through dehydrated trees and heated rocks, we eventually found our oasis. A small stream or puddle was that oasis, as if it had been waiting for us.

I like to think of the earth as a body. The rivers are like the veins. If veins are blocked, no blood circulation is flowing through the body. The same goes for water.

In the blistering summer of 2004, I visited an Indian reservation in New Mexico. It is inactive because the village people turned it into a historical landmark where tourists can visit. I remember bony and grimy dogs running around us. The Native Americans sat underneath a canopy selling potato chips and soda. They looked upset, I tried not to make eye contact with anyone. I was a moody teenager. There was no clean water to take from the river anymore though. They sat underneath the canopy disengaged.

The waste travels en route by ground transportation. It parades through six different states and meets 10 different Native American Reservations until it encounters its home, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Southern New Mexico. As of April 9, 2012, there have been 10,405 waste shipments to the pilot plant in southern New Mexico. The waste has a “safe” route but it travels through the most highly populated Native Reservations and Interstate highways.

What about the children and adults who live on these Reservations? I’ve always wondered about the water sources, food, and health care of reservations. My mom’s friend Patsy, who has family on the San Juan Reservation in Espanola, told me that it is difficult to visit the active pueblos. There will always be a distance….

The Waste Pilot website offers a map of all of the places nuclear waste is transported. The nuclear waste travels through my home in Colorado. It travels constant along all of the major interstate and U.S. highways. Rocky Flats Technology site is accessed by Interstate-25 in Colorado. This site is said to have radioactive decay due to nuclear chemicals and fires. Long-term exposure to plutonium carries a danger of serious health outcomes including radiation sickness, genetic damage, cancer, and death. The danger increases with the amount of exposure. I-25 is most the frequently used interstate in Colorado other than I-70. More than once a week, I hear about accidents on I-25. I live no more than twenty miles from the Interstates. Maybe the worry gene isn’t genetic after all.  

Angela Martinez is an English Major who studied her Batchelor of Arts at the Metropolitan State College of Denver.  Angela will be a licensed elementary teacher for grades K-6 in 2014.  She has taught as an assistant teacher teacher for five years in Denver Public Schools.  She would love to travel to Peru upon receiving her license to teach.

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