The NRC asked Albuquerque’s Sandia National Laboratories to answer this question. So commercial nuclear plants all over the world sent enriched uranium to Sandia, where scientists triggered dozens of nuclear meltdowns by irradiating the fuel at temperatures greater than 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit in its Annular Core Research Reactor.
They collected data from these meltdowns, while high-speed cameras recorded the progress. The experiments contributed to the creation of fail-safe computer codes based on various worst-case scenarios. Nuclear reactors worldwide reprogrammed their computers based on these codes.
These were real nuclear meltdowns that produced dangerous nuclear wastes. The only safe storage option for such wastes would have been in a specially engineered facility, but no such option existed at the time. Instead the NRC allowed Sandia to bury dozens of radioactive canisters full of meltdown material in vertical holes drilled into shallow, unlined trenches in its 2.6-acre Sandia Mixed Waste Landfill (MWL). The dump opened in 1959 and for nearly 30 years, until it closed in 1988, received as much as 1.5 million cubic feet of radioactive and toxic material.
Into open pits near the Pueblo of Isleta, Sandia dumped carcinogenic solvents such as tetrachloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethelyene (TCE) and dichlorodifluoromethane (CFC-12). Into unlined trenches a few hundred feet above the aquifer, it dumped metals like beryllium, cadmium, chromium, nickel and 281,000 pounds of lead. In the middle of it all, it buried tons of various radioactive elements, including more than 100 drums of plutonium, which has a radioactive half-life of 24,100 years.
Some material was landfilled in steel drums, but tons of material was tossed into the landfill in plastic bags or cardboard boxes. In 1967 the Lab turned MWL into a toxic-radioactive stew when it poured 271,000 gallons of reactor coolant water into the landfill. It’s a flammable stew too; in 1974 the depleted uranium caught fire.
When Sandia finally closed the landfill, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) gave the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) the authority to force Sandia to clean up the site and monitor it for contamination. While a network of groundwater-
One of the wells recorded elevated levels of chromium, cadmium and nickel contamination to the northwest of the landfill. Sandia claimed they came from corrosion at the site of the well, not from the landfill, despite the fact that no other wells exhibited similar corrosion. Field investigations in 1994 found elevated levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and tritium in sub-surface soils. Sandia downplayed any concern, concluding, despite subsequent evidence to the contrary, that the material would decay before ever reaching groundwater.
Though the permit requires it, Sandia has not completed an excavation and removal feasibility study. But just last month NMED issued Sandia conditional approval for a Certificate of Completion for its permit. Such a permit would allow Sandia to permanently store high-level nuclear waste, mixed with carcinogens and volatile compounds, in unlined trenches covered in dirt. If such a landfill were proposed today, it would violate every state and federal law governing the regulation of radioactive and toxic waste management.
Eric Nuttall, emeritus professor of Chemical & Nuclear Engineering at the University of New Mexico and an expert on in situ remediation of groundwater, thinks it’s more than just a feeling. “This is no ordinary landfill,” Nutall told me. “It’s unlike any other dump in the United States. It’s full of extremely hazardous and highly radioactive materials. In order to protect the environment and human health, it should be excavated and landfilled in a secure, engineered facility. It’s no exaggeration to say that if the material in the landfill were distributed around the world and people were exposed, it would kill everyone on Earth.”