Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2015-2016
Photos & story by Martha Kaempffer & Bonnie Urfer
We set off on a Truck Watch trip on October 26. The goal was to uncover radioactive trucks on the highways, at truck stops, or entering or leaving a dump facility. The journey was reminiscent of the work done by Sam Day and so many others when we monitored nuclear traffic at Oak Ridge, Tennessee for the first time, decades ago. We didn’t know what we were doing and it took years to perfect our technique and build a network. Eventually, activists did an amazing job of informing the public about nuclear weapons transports or “H-bomb trucks” on the roads. Our recent journey was just the first of many Truck Watches to come and we have a lot to learn.
Our first destination was the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) dump near Andrews, in West Texas, which is located adjacent to the URENCO uranium enrichment factory on Texas County Highway 87. WCS takes low-level radioactive waste from the government and other rad-waste producers around the country. We checked truck stops where we walked up and down rows of semis, walking our dog Camper and holding the radiation detector close to trailers. We found nothing out of the ordinary. We did not come across a truck leaking radiation on this trip, but our Radalert did alert us to plenty of radioactive places.
In northwest Wisconsin, home to Nukewatch, ambient radiation averages around 10 counts per minute (cpm). Readings at WCS averaged in the low 20s. Road construction at the entrance of WCS prevented us from parking and closely monitoring traffic entering and leaving the site. We sat in a safe area about a mile down the road from the site but unfortunately missed a load that made the Radalert jump. After a day of monitoring and surveying we moved on and headed toward Carlsbad, New Mexico, home to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), where the Energy Department is burying high-level military waste deep underground.
We traveled west and came across a road going south to WIPP, but, oddly, we didn’t see the road sign declaring: “Restricted.” That is where we got the photo (below) of waste canisters accumulating in a parking lot. WIPP was closed in February 2014 due to an explosion of a 55-gallon drum in one of its underground chambers and the consequent contamination of workers there. Passing through the town of Carlsbad, the Radalert radiation monitor jumped to 40 cpm, but we did not see a truck or find the source of the radiation.
We then visited Los Alamos, New Mexico, which calls itself The Atomic City and is the site of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) that designs hydrogen bombs. Following is Martha’s impression of seeing it for the first time:
This eerie place used to be a “closed city”—off limits to anyone who did not work on weapon design and manufacturing there. Now it’s a tourist destination with a visitor’s center full of wartime sloganeering like “Talk Means Trouble: Don’t Talk” and “Silence So They Survive,” and a selection of Atomic City T-shirts showcasing H-bomb “art” like a massive mushroom cloud over the declaration,“It’s a blast!” Nearby there’s a large advertisement for the exciting new Manhattan Project National Historic Park that opened a week after we were there. We drove through the city and passed the public transportation hub which is called “Atomic City Transit,” the local gym, “Fusion Multisport,” and streets with names like Gamma Ray, Nuclear Street, Mercury Road, Eniwetok Drive and Bikini Atoll Road. In a tourist shop we found shot glasses printed with outlines of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” (the nicknames of the given the bombs we dropped in Japan), more T-shirts, and even Atomic City Salsa.
Having not been alive in the mid-’80s when protests and actions at the Nevada Test Site and Oak Ridge, Tenn. took place regularly, this was my first time entering such a place and I can say that my jaw was hanging open the entire way through Los Alamos. The glorification of the bomb was undeniable and sickening. I felt as if I were in some other worldly place where everyone was brainwashed and I was the “conscious” spy. I was nauseated over the veneration of these weapons used to kill and maim hundreds of thousands of innocent mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. I just wanted to shout out loud in the middle of the visitor’s center, “Do you know what these bombs did? What they could do at any moment? These ‘casualties’ are real human beings that matter.” Somehow I managed to refrain due to the creepy accepting nature of the locals.
We passed through a check-point (frankly I’m amazed that Bonnie managed to pass inspection) and drove through the entire LANL weapons facility checking things out and getting readings (in the low-20s throughout the complex) and photographs. Although we noticed very little truck traffic, we did find a few excellent places for monitoring trucks and plan to return.
The following day, we took some back roads through Church Rock, New Mexico, the site of the massive 1979 uranium mine waste spill in which over 1,100 tons of solid radioactive mill waste and 93 million gallons of acidic, radioactively contaminated liquid flowed into the Puerco River and traveled 80 miles downstream through Navajo lands. The wall of water reportedly overwhelmed sewers and lifted manhole covers 20 miles down river in Gallop.Days passed before residents and river-goers were notified of the spill, allowing plenty of time for children to swim in and livestock to drink the water which was contaminated to 7,000 times that of “safe” water.
We were able to drive right alongside the now dried up riverbed and see old tailings piles and abandoned United Nuclear buildings. We may have done a bit of slight trespassing in order to get readings from down in the riverbed. Once down there the highest reading was 34 cpm. Other than a large jackrabbit we did not see any other notable traffic and moved on to the Nevada Test Site.
As the road narrowed to just single lanes near Creech Air Force Base and the Test Site, we had our Radalert out and checked trucks coming in the opposite direction and as we passed them. Just a week and a half prior to our being there, a massive explosion had taken place at Beatty near the Test Site and they had closed down 140 miles of Highway 95, the road we were on, as a result. (See cover.) We wanted to get readings along the way to see how much had been contaminated. They were fairly consistent in the low 20s. Although we witnessed a drone landing at Creech AFB and happened along some wild desert horses while parked along the side of the road monitoring trucks, we found nothing more.
After Nevada, we headed back toward home up through Utah and Colorado. While driving east through Colorado on I-70, we passed through a tiny near-ghost-town called Silver Plume. Suddenly we had a reading of 60 cpm. This reading was shocking because only gamma radiation is the sort that can pass through the body of the car, and gamma radiation should not be coming off silver mine waste.
We looked all around us and found no suspicious vehicles so we pressed on and, as we were driving on a mountain road with small towns, we didn’t stop to investigate the area. That night we made it to Boulder, and at a dog park there with Camper, we sat and researched the histories of Silver Plume and Georgetown. We didn’t find records of anything but gold and silver ever being mined there.
The next day we returned to Silver Plume for more readings. Radiation levels were fairly high along the way—in the 30s and 40s—but we couldn’t find any specific sources. A quick stop at the village welcome center in Georgetown pointed us to a hiking trail—the “7:30 Trail”—which used to be an old silver mine track. We were told that tailings piles were all along the road. We parked on the gravel Main Street in Silver Plume and followed the directions up the mountain. Before we even got to the trailhead, we found a few piles next to each other equaling one massive tailings pile. Walking up the mountain our cpm readings jumped from the high 40s and 50s, to 62 cpm on top of the tailings pile. Bonnie called the local newspaper and chatted with a reporter. Martha—hearing voices coming up the trail we had just climbed— asked the hikers if they had any information on what was being mined and whether they had been told that the area was so “hot.” They in turn asked if high radiation levels were a bad thing! They continued up the 7:30 Trail, a walk that would take them past numerous tailings piles.
After taking pictures and Radalert readings we went back to the car and passed a sheriff parked in town and asked if he had a moment to talk. We told him about our findings. His friendly response was essentially that he “wasn’t surprised.” He pointed us toward the county Health Department one town over. We stopped there too but the woman in charge was out so we were given her business card and sent on our way. Having gathered some alarming information, contacted the media and the local police, we decided to continue home.
Our return journey was uneventful although we did pass a few Minuteman III missile silos in Wyoming and stopped to take pictures. The missile silos are still quite unnerving due to the barrenness of the landscape, the scant number of other people around, and the presence of all of the security cameras.
More Truck Watches Needed
Lively discussions about our trip take place frequently in the Nukewatch office. We want to continue our investigation and expand the Truck Watch. To make it better, we need to raise money. Please consider donating to our Truck Watch Campaign to support more research and future trips. We also need volunteers to investigate with us. We need further investigation of the gamma source radiation at Silver Plume. We need equipment upgrades. Radioactive waste trucks move from facility to factory, on trains and trucks—it’s a business to be concerned about. It’s a business that affects everyone. We have so much more to do.
Radioactive Waste Transport Notes
- On Sept. 29, the congressional representative whose district includes Andrews, Texas—Republican Mike Conaway—filed legislation called the Interim Consolidated Storage Act of 2015, which would change the current Nuclear Waste Policy Act to allow the US Department of Energy to take ownership of spent nuclear fuel and contract with private companies—like Andrews-based Waste Control Specialists (WCS)—to store it. The bill is currently under committee review. Approval for spent fuel storage by WCS or its New Mexican rival proposed by Holtec would cause large amounts of high-level spent fuel to be transported from all across the country to a centralized site.
- In addition to the low-level waste traveling on our highways and railways daily, more than 3,000 used nuclear fuel shipments have been made covering a total distance of over 1.5 million miles in the past 40 years, according to a 2009 report by the Canadian Nuclear Waste Management Association.
- Concerned about a 20-ton spent fuel rod shipment possibly headed from Virginia to Tennessee, three nuclear watchdog groups—Savannah River Site Watch (SC), Snake River Alliance Education Fund (ID), and the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (TN)—filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in November. The groups are asking for more information about the timing and specific route the fuel rods will take as they travel across the country.
- Correction: In the cover article of the Fall 2015 Quarterly (“Nukewatch Plans Truck Watch…”), we referred to the private waste dump operated by Waste Control Specialists in Texas as “the only open storage facility in the US.” Three other low-level waste disposal sites have current licenses with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Barnwell in South Carolina, operated by EnergySolutions, which only accepts waste from Atlantic compact states; a US Ecology site in Richland, Washington accepting waste from the Rocky Mountain and Northwest compact states; and the EnergySolutions site in Clive, Utah, which accepts waste from all regions of the US.