Tag Archives: Carlsbad New Mexico

Maybe Someday: what to do with nuclear waste

Nuclear Plant Locations in the US. Image from wikipedia

The problem now, however, is civilian waste from power plants that came online in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Nuclear power generates a fifth of America’s electricity; its 99 reactors account for almost a third of all nuclear power generated worldwide. Five more are under construction—the first to be approved since the 1970s—partly thanks to federal loan guarantees intended to boost clean energy production. The waste they generate has been stored safely, but it will stay dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. That requires a longer-term plan than leaving it outside, however well encased in concrete.
Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the federal government pledged to dispose of nuclear waste—both civilian and military—permanently. Several possible plans were drawn up, many involving burying the waste in salt deposits deep under ground. To pay for this eventual cost, a levy was added to the bills of consumers of nuclear power.

But politics got in the way. In 1987 Congress determined that only one place, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, would be considered. This, says Richard Stewart of New York University Law School, was the result of a stich-up between two congressmen who did not want their states to host waste dumps. Tom Foley, the then House majority leader, and Jim Wright, the Speaker, blocked proposals for sites in their home states of Washington and Texas.

Nevadans nickname the 1987 amendment the “screw Nevada” bill, and they have fiercely resisted implementation. Some $15 billion has been spent on building the repository at Yucca Mountain, but no waste has been moved there. Nevadans are quick to point to the damage done to their state by nuclear-weapons tests. Since 2010, the Department of Energy has formally ruled the facility out. In a lawsuit in 2013, the government was forced to stop collecting the levy on nuclear power until a plan exists for a permanent site. It has also been forced to pay utility companies for the costs of storing waste temporarily, since it did not start collecting waste fuel in 1998, as the original law dictated.

Some hope Yucca Mountain might be reopened by a new president. “The only aspect of used fuel in this country that has been problematic is the politics”, says John Keeley of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobby group. In January the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the regulator, concluded that the site is safe for the disposal of waste. But the worries of Nevadans—that moving spent fuel on railways might lead to spills, or that radioactivity could leak into the environment—remain.

Recent experience doesn’t help. America already operates one of the world’s few deep storage sites for radioactive waste—near Carlsbad, in New Mexico. It stores waste mostly from nuclear-weapons production. In February 2014 the facility suffered two crippling accidents. One was apparently caused by workers packaging waste with the wrong sort of cat litter. The plant-based “Swheat Scoop” brand they used, unlike the mineral-based kind they were meant to, did not absorb radioactivity very well. The facility has not accepted any new waste since.

Excerpts from Nuclear Waste: Faff and fallout, Economist, August 29, 2015, at 23

Nowhere to Go? Nuclear Waste from Washington to New Mexico

WIPP.  Installing supports in waste disposal rooms to keep them stable until filled.  image from wikipedia

Federal officials are looking to ship some 3 million gallons of radioactive waste from Washington state to New Mexico, giving the government more flexibility to deal with leaking tanks at Hanford Nuclear Reservation…The Department of Energy said its preferred plan would ultimately dispose of the waste in a massive repository – called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant – near Carlsbad, N.M, where radioactive materials are buried in rooms excavated in vast salt beds nearly a half-mile underground.

The federal proposal was quickly met with criticism from a New Mexico environmental group that said the state permit allowing the government to bury waste at the plant would not allow for shipments from Hanford, the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.  Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said WIPP specifically prohibits waste from Hanford and any proposal to modify permit language in this case would need “strong justification and public input.”  “WIPP has demonstrated success in its handling of defense TRU waste,” Udall said in a statement. “With regard to Hanford waste, I urge all parties involved to exhibit caution and scientific integrity to ensure that DOE is abiding by the law and that the waste classifications are justified.”  The waste near Carlsbad includes such things as clothing, tools and other debris.

The transfer from Washington would target so-called transuranic waste, which is less radioactive than some of the sludge at Hanford, and accounts for a fraction of the roughly 50 million gallons of waste there currently. Federal officials have identified six leaking tanks, and five of the leakers contain transuranic waste, said Tom Fletcher, assistant manager of the tank farms for the Energy Department.  Dave Huizenga, head of the Energy Department’s Environmental Management program, said the transfer would not impact the safe operations of the New Mexico facility.  “This alternative, if selected for implementation in a record of decision, could enable the Department to reduce potential health and environmental risk in Washington State,” said Huizenga.

Don Hancock, of the Albuquerque-based watchdog group Southwest Research and Information opposing the transfer to New Mexico, said this is not the first time DOE has proposed bringing more waste to the plant near Carlsbad.  “This is a bad, old idea that’s been uniformly rejected on a bipartisan basis by politicians when it came up in the past, and it’s been strongly opposed by citizen groups like mine and others,” Hancock said. “It’s also clear that it’s illegal.”

Disposal operations near Carlsbad began in March 1999. Since then, more than 85,000 cubic meters of waste have been shipped to WIPP from a dozen sites around the country.  Any additional waste from Hanford would have to be analyzed to ensure it could be stored at the site because a permit issued by the New Mexico Environment Department dictates what kinds of waste and the volumes that can be stored there…

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says the proposal is a good start in the process of getting rid of Hanford’s waste… He also said a system is in place to treat the groundwater should contamination from the leaks reach it.  In the meantime, Inslee plans to push Congress to fully fund this proposal, saying “every single dollar of it is justified.”

South-central Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation is home to 177 underground tanks, which hold toxic and radioactive waste left from decades of plutonium production for the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal…In a letter to Inslee, the Department of Energy estimated it will have to eliminate $92 million for its Office of River Protection, which oversees efforts to empty the tanks and build a plant to treat the waste. The cuts will result in furloughs or layoffs impacting about 2,800 contract workers, the agency said…. [Currently]The U.S. government spends some $2 billion each year on cleanup at Hanford – one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally….

Excerpts, Austin Reed Federal proposal for nuclear waste problem in Washington State, Associated Press, Mar. 8, 2013

Storage of Nuclear Waste in the United States II: New Mexico

The (Savannah River SiteSRS Citizens Advisory Board will discuss a recommendation to send some or all of the site’s 3,100 “ready for shipment” canisters of stabilized waste to the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., where lower-level “transuranic” nuclear waste is buried in 250 million-year-old salt deposits a half-mile beneath the Chihuahuan Desert.  The most dangerous waste at SRS is being vitrified – placed into glass poured into steel canisters that, until the Obama administration canceled the Yucca Mountain project in 2010, were to be removed from South Carolina for burial in Nevada.

“SRS is now storing these canisters with no known final disposition path,” the board wrote in a draft recommendation to be discussed at its May 21-22 meeting in Savannah, Ga. Ultimately, the number of canisters will swell to 7,500, equiring – in addition to two existing storage buildings – the construction of a third storage site.  The indefinite storage of high-level waste that DOE pledged to remove from South Carolina “has not been accepted well by the surrounding communities” and undermines DOE’s credibility, the draft said.

The WIPP site was designed for the disposition of the same type of canisters stored at SRS but is licensed only for less-concentrated radioactive wastes, such as lightly contaminated clothing, tools and other materials. Because of that difference, revising the facility’s acceptance criteria would likely require approval from Congress.  “From our limited understanding the WIPP site would be technically feasible and it seems to have an astounding amount of capacity to accept radioactive waste,” the draft said. “Further, any attempt to have canisters removed from SRS would have an immediate positive impact on the surrounding communities.”

The board is a stakeholder group that provides the assistant secretary for environmental management and designees with advice, information and recommendations on issues affecting the environmental and cleanup programs.

By Rob Pavey,SRS nuclear waste could go to New Mexico facility, The Augusta Chronicle, May 10, 2012