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Life After Yucca

Reviving hope for spent-fuel storage.

Fortnightly Magazine - November 2010

tax revenues, and their generally positive safety track records during decades of operation have ensured strong local support for continued operation.

Where spent fuel is stored at plant sites, impacts are monitored closely. At some locations, the owners of 13 plants undergoing decommissioning seek to move stored waste elsewhere. These are among the locations pressing for permanent repositories. 6

Finally the WIPP in Carlsbad, N.M., has been operating for more than a decade, and it remains the only permanent geologic disposal site anywhere in the world for transuranic wastes—which represent less than 1 percent of the world’s radioactive wastes. The evolution of that site demonstrates a thoughtful public and technical process.

WIPP: Success in New Mexico

The reasons for the WIPP’s success are complex, but they illustrate important elements in a successful siting strategy.

First, the community became aware in the mid-1970s that local potash mines had become uncompetitive, which threatened a major source of jobs. Local officials looked for alternative uses of a nearby salt dome, knowing that such a site is prima facie evidence of lack of water intrusion over millions of years. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) studies from the 1950s designated salt domes as possible storage sites for spent nuclear fuel. Also, with weapons centers in Albuquerque, local leaders in Carlsbad became aware of the need for permanent storage of nuclear wastes. This led to the long and complex process leading to the creation of WIPP. The plant now employs about 1,000 people, one-third of the local labor force.

An interview with John Heaton, Carlsbad’s representative in the state legislature, indicates strong community support for the WIPP facility and possibly even for long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel (see “Building the WIPP”) .

This support notwithstanding, the state subjected the facility to close scrutiny throughout its development. A bill in the legislature in 1975 to block WIPP failed, but led to the creation of a Nuclear Radiation Waste Committee to oversee the process. Through that process, the state government became comfortable with the project. Now, New Mexico is working with the U.S. DOE under a consultation and cooperation agreement, in which DOE reports health and safety issues to the New Mexico attorney general.

The state also has regulatory authority over Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) wastes and water-quality issues, which gives it a key permitting role in siting related facilities.

There has been some discussion about the potential of expanding the WIPP to handle spent nuclear fuel, considering the great storage capacity of its extensive salt-dome formation. 7 At the state level, however, Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department Ron Curry told Fortnightly that widespread opposition in New Mexico prevents expanding the role of the WIPP beyond its current mission of storing transuranic wastes, because of technical issues about such storage. He noted that the site is surrounded by oil and gas fields; that it’s underlain by salt brine that theoretically might someday infuse the site; and that greater heat from higher-level radioactive wastes, such as spent fuel, might cause deterioration of the salt dome.