Twenty-five years after it was first proposed, and a decade after its construction, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad, N.M., received its first truckload of nuclear debris. The world's first geologically engineered nuclear waste dump opened early on March 26, right after a federal judge lifted a seven-year-old injunction that had kept the facility shuttered (HCN, 7/6/98).


The first truck carried about 600 pounds of plutonium-tainted clothing, gloves, filters, coveralls and metal cans from the Los Alamos National Laboratory 270 miles southeast to Carlsbad. Unless opponents can secure another injunction, 10 federal defense plants from around the nation will send 37,000 truckloads to WIPP. The trucks will haul material left over from Cold War-era nuclear bomb production lines.


DOE officials and their partisans were jubilant. "We won the Cold War by building nuclear weapons, but we have not cleaned up the legacy of the Cold War and its waste," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told The New York Times. "The opening of this facility is a step to meeting this obligation."


Opponents vowed to keep fighting the project, saying the federal government needs a state hazardous-waste permit to open, even though its first few drums won't contain any conventional hazardous wastes. But only handfuls of protesters showed up along the WIPP route. One of the stalwarts, Santa Fe businessman Richard Johnson, said, "I couldn't be sleeping when the first truck went by after all this struggle."


*Tony Davis