Tuesday, March 22, 2011

No Nukes! Growing Up With WIPP

I find myself writing this blog at 3 a.m., because lately this is around the hour I wake up thinking about Japan and can't get back to sleep. Here's where my middle of the night mind has taken me tonight...

So, the last semester of my high school was spent at Los Alamos High in New Mexico, the town where the atom bomb was created by Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project. I grew up in Santa Fe, and for that first semester of my Junior year I commuted every day around the beautiful sharp bends of the carved canyons to Los Alamos with my mom, who worked for their school system. In Santa Fe it seemed that everyone around me had No Nukes! bumper stickers on their cars; in Los Alamos, my friends' fathers worked for the labs that built the bombs.

Growing up in New Mexico, the awareness of nuclear energy was huge. When I was there in the 80s, it was a very active time for something called WIPP (known colloquially as "whip"), the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, located outside of Carlsbad, NM. The WIPP project defines itself on its website in this way: "The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, safely disposes of the nation's defense-related transuranic radioactive waste. Located in the Chihuahuan Desert, outside Carlsbad, N.M., WIPP began disposal operations in March 1999." When I do the math, I can see that it took well over a decade for the government run program to begin their dirty business, which involved nuclear waste being driven in unmarked vans down New Mexico highways to their ultimate place of toxic rest. Let it be said now that New Mexico had at the time (does it still?) one of the highest drunk driving rates per capita, so driving nuclear waste down highways in unmarked vans wasn't the wisest choice, us hippie children in Santa Fe were taught to believe.

I'll never forget this short and pimpled nerdy kid arguing with me in my science class over how stupid he thought I was because I was vocally against nuclear energy; everyone in Los Alamos seemed to support the effort because for many, it cut their family's fat paychecks. Pimply Kid so vehemently wanted to make me feel ignorant that the next day he brought in a brochure from Pop's office about the difference between fossil fuel environmental depletion and nuclear energy. As an aside, I imagined his father's office as a heavily guarded maximum security shelter carved into a mountainside, a la Batman. I came to find out one late night, while driving around near the labs with friends, that I wasn't too far off the mark. The brochure he brought in to show me had a visual aid that was set up to look something like this: a chart which scaled of millions of trees next against a tiny pebble. Why wouldn't I want to be on the side of the tiny nuclear pebble? Well, I just didn't. It felt dangerous and reckless, even if I didn't have hard facts like he did to solidly prop up my fears. Even if this kid's IQ was 179 and he was the reigning Chess Champion or some crap like that. And even if the "Narple Heads" (which in Santa Fean translated to "hippie people with bumper sticker covered cars") who I stood in solidarity with at the age of 16 looked like throwback burnouts who drove beat up cars with No Nukes! bumper stickers all over them. In reality, underneath their long hair and their mandatory Birkenstocks they were citizen activists who would protest WIPP by laying down in the highways holding hands so vans couldn't pass through their human barricade.

Looking back on that discussion I wish I could recreate that visual aid today so that the image becomes thousands of beautiful windmills shown opposing the image of the tiny nuclear pebble. So here we are now tumbling down the rabbit hole of this modern technology, and I'm afraid we'll be in Alice's new nuclear WasteLand for aeons to come. I wonder if my high school antagonist finds himself waking up at 3 a.m worrying for his children's world the way I worry for mine... it's the same world, after all.


  1. I lived just north of there in Artesia...

  2. This is such an inspiring piece. Such lovely writing style you have.

    Helen, X http://areyoudressingupordressingdown.blogspot.com