Tag Archives: Carlsbad New Mexico

Forget Nevada! How America Buries its Nuclear Waste 1999-2019

Just before midnight on June 27, 2019, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), Carlsbad, New Mexico received its 12,500th transuranic (TRU) waste shipment since operations began there in 1999.

Nuclear Waste heading to WIPP from Idaho

The shipment originated from the EM program at Idaho National Laboratory, which has sent WIPP the most TRU waste shipments — 6,500 and counting — of all Departement of Energy (DOE) generator sites over the past 20 years. .

Idaoho National Laboratory Nuclear Waste Management

.WIPP drivers have safely traveled over 14.9 million loaded miles, transporting more than 178,500 waste containers for permanent disposal 2,150 feet underground.

Excerpts from WIPP Reaches 12,500-Shipment Milestone, Press Release US Department of Energy, July 2, 2019

Nuclear Waste: play for time

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

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