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The Manhattan Project Is Finally (Sort of) Coming to Texas

Texas didn't get the bomb, but the nuclear waste is all ours.EXPAND
Texas didn't get the bomb, but the nuclear waste is all ours.

Back in the early 1940s when the U.S. Department of Defense was looking for some remote corner of nowhere to work on the Manhattan Project, maybe Texans were just a bit hurt that none of the out-of-the-way corners of our state (ahem -- the Panhandle) got picked.

Alas, Texas wasn't even on the list, though the folks in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, were more fortunate -- the federal government seized 56,000 acres of land and tossed the people living on it out for next to nothing so they could build a production facility.

No, instead of going Texan, Oppenheimer and his gang decided to go off and develop the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. They picked the spot because of the dry desert scenery (with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains right out the window, it was a spot right out of a John Ford western) and went to work on the bombs that would obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and pretty much end World War II, according to some.

And Texas didn't get even a tiny piece of the glory, though they did consider using Padre Island as a site to test the first bomb, so we almost had that feather in our cap.

Instead, Oppenheimer and company built some bunkers in New Mexico, created and blew up the bombs and then went and made history by using them on real people (check out John Hersey's Hiroshima if you want to get a feel for the true horrific experience of what it was like for the people who actually got the atomic bomb dropped on them). When you are working with the stuff of nuclear warfare, there's always nuclear waste. Since the project was based in Los Alamos, a whole bunch of the nuclear waste from the project and general nuclear testing was buried in the ground and kept in big old barrels at the Los Alamos laboratories in that little corner of New Mexico.

Which was all fine and basically dandy, until June 2011 when a massive wildfire got extremely close to those barrels of plutonium-contaminated waste, causing officials to start monitoring the situation intently, according to the Associated Press. You know, because when you've got a whole bunch of nuclear waste, it's generally not a great idea to set the stuff on fire. Firefighters managed to avoid that situation (thus probably avoiding creating unexpected superheroes or, you know, just wreaking cancerous havoc on anyone who happened to breathe in the stuff), and after that, New Mexico environmental officials decided they'd had enough of being the special chosen nuclear place. Last year, they made a deal with the folks over at Los Alamos to get rid of the nuclear waste by January 2014, AP reported.

But where is this nuclear waste headed? Well, Texas didn't get to learn how to stop worrying and love the bomb way back in the day, but the Lone Star State finally gets to play a part in the epic of the A-bomb.  

First Los Alamos nuclear waste. Are aliens next?
First Los Alamos nuclear waste. Are aliens next?

A couple of years back, Waste Control Specialists LLC, a Dallas-based disposal outfit -- of course they're from Dallas -- became the first company in 30 years to get a license to treat, store and dispose of low-level radioactive waste. Then, in 2011, the Texas Low Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission voted to allow the company to start accepting nuclear waste from 36 other states.

The facility (that's a nice word for dump) is located in West Texas (the region, not the city) about five miles outside the little town of Andrews. The imported waste is buried in concrete containers 30 to 100 feet below the ground, in a vein of red clay that is supposed to keep the nuclear contents from spilling or shifting or generally sloshing around. Once the containers are full, they get buried out in that Texas soil, and there they'll stay, becoming less radioactive in a process that takes a really long time (high-level waste can take thousands of years, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.)

And now, after decades since that first little snub over where to locate the lab for atomic research, it looks like New Mexico is finally going to share some of that historical stuff with Texas, namely the Los Alamos nuclear waste. We know that it's a real sacrifice for New Mexico to part with it -- heck, one good wildfire could have given the whole state superhero powers -- but Texans, especially the ones out in West Texas who will be closest to the site, sure are grateful to finally be a part of all this.

Maybe the folks over in Roswell will send us some of their aliens next. Considering we didn't even get a space shuttle, that's probably a pipe dream, but fingers crossed.


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