Two years ago, President Barack Obama torpedoed the high-level radioactive waste disposal program by abandoning the Yucca Mountain project, after $12 billion had been spent on mining and engineering to develop a deep geologic repository at the Nevada desert site.
But his decision was based on politics, not science. It was done at the urging of Nevada’s powerful senator, Harry Reid.
Now, there is good reason to consider a consent-based approach to selecting a new site instead of having the government force a state to accept a waste repository, as was done in Nevada. Polls show that the majority of Nevadans oppose the Yucca Mountain project, so we know that siting a radioactive waste repository is a hugely ambitious undertaking fraught with challenges.
Fortunately, a facility for radioactive waste disposal already exists in the United States, but it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. Since 1999, more than 10,000 truckloads of low-level radioactive waste from the nuclear weapons program has been stored in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, a repository a half-mile below the desert floor 26 miles from Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico.
The waste — mainly tools, machinery and other debris contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other radioactive materials — is shipped in steel drums by truck and railroad from 21 nuclear weapons research and production facilities ranging from South Carolina to Washington state. Some of the waste has been hauled by truck more than 1,000 miles without any serious problems.
At the WIPP facility, it is lowered into the repository and placed in one of several dozen chambers. Waste shipments are slated to continue for another 25 to 35 years. Then more than a dozen layers of soil and concrete will be placed around the repository, which covers two-thirds of a square mile.
Salt is an ideal medium for an underground radioactive waste repository. It is plastic, capable of filling in any fissures or cracks that may develop in the future. After about 75 years, the WIPP repository will be completely sealed off from the environment.
In the 1970s, prior to its selection of Yucca Mountain, the Department of Energy considered a site in North Texas (Deaf Smith county) with the same huge salt bed that underlies WIPP. DOE ought to take another look at the Texas site as it considers locations for a facility to store canisters of high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants and the nuclear weapons program.
In fact, salt beds underlie most of the U.S., so other suitable sites should be available.
Currently, some 73,000 tons of high level radioactive waste in the form of spent fuel is stored at nuclear plants in 30 states, and the amount of spent fuel is increasing by about 2,000 tons annually. Though it is being stored safely, the government is obligated by law to take possession of it.
In January of this year, the Department of Energy’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future published its final report. One of the primary recommendations of the commission was to establish a consent-based approach to selecting a high-level radioactive waste repository wherein local consent by a state is needed in order to select a repository site. The Commission visited the WIPP facility, and came away impressed with what it saw. It praised the consent-based approach that had been used in building public acceptance of WIPP.
Back in the 1970s when southeastern New Mexico was first proposed as a site for a waste repository, people in the region voiced concern about its safety. The New Mexico Environmental Evaluation Group was formed to examine every statement, study, and report DOE issued regarding WIPP, and to ask questions and get answers.
It worked. People in Carlsbad are so supportive of WIPP that a group, led by the mayor, is lobbying to have high-level radioactive waste repository located in the same salt bed.
WIPP is a great source of jobs and revenue for Carlsbad. WIPP’s annual budget is $215 million, and a large share of the money remains in Carlsbad. The project has created about 1,300 jobs at the repository, including many well-paid engineering jobs, and an equal number of support jobs. Today the unemployment rate in Carlsbad is 3 percent, compared to 6.5 percent in New Mexico overall and 8.5 percent nationally.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that southeastern New Mexico — or, for that matter, North Texas — are necessarily the best sites for a repository to hold nuclear plant waste. But if the right approach is used, the WIPP experience shows that a site can and will be found for a repository to replace Yucca Mountain.