CARLSBAD, N.M. (KRQE) - We've all seen fake plants, but palm trees made of metal? That's what you'll find if you visit the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.
It's a tropical sight in the middle of the southeast New Mexican desert.
"The most asked question that we get on tours is that when people are strolling around the site, they look up and see what they think is metal palm trees, and say, what is that thing?” said Roy Neece, Nuclear Waste Partnership Communication Specialist.
The metal structures aren't just there for shade. They are hemisphere arrays used to protect infrastructure at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad.
“What this array does is it basically creates a cloud of positively charged ions,” Neece said. “It keeps those streamers from going up from the ground making that connection.”
Their main purpose is to protect the facility from lightning strikes.
“You don't want a lightning strike to hit anywhere near the facility, especially a direct hit,” Neece explained.
Located at five different areas along the WIPP site, the metal arrays protect everything from the salt shafts to the exhaust filters.
Engineers at WIPP have traced the technology back to 1913.
"In Tesla's application, he included some sketches,” Neece said. “One of the sketches included something that vaguely looked like a palm tree.”
The design has worked to protect the radioactive waste storage site since 1987.
“They have worked. We have had a couple of strikes that have come under the protective layer but nothing direct,” Neece said.
Engineers at WIPP say after three decades, the lightning-protection system needs an upgrade. However, the palm trees probably won't come down, they'll just be updated.
“There is money in the system to upgrade it because it's like grandpa, you know, it’s at the end of the lifespan,” he said.
WIPP estimates it will cost at least $1 million for a system upgrade.