"CARLSBAD, N.M. — For 15 years, workers from this dusty New Mexico town have made the 26-mile drive down a series of worn two-lane highways until reaching a strange complex of alabaster buildings in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert.
These days, though, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only permanent underground repository for nuclear weapons waste, is closed. The plant has been shut down ever since a mysterious leak exposed 17 employees to radiation on Feb. 14.
So far, the workers have tested positive for extremely low levels of radiation, not enough to cause adverse health effects, according to officials at the federal Energy Department, which oversees the plant. But in Carlsbad — a blue-collar community of about 27,000 along the Pecos River that has long taken pride in its handling of the nation’s Cold War waste — concerns about contamination have given way to fears that the facility will not reopen anytime soon."