Disposing of nuclear waste from power plants is an issue that has not been addressed by the US, despite decades of talk and study. Way back in 1982, the US government passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which mandated the collection of billions of dollars from nuclear power plant operators with the promise that the US government would open a repository for permanent burial of the waste by January 31st, 1998 (1). The government later mandated that disposal facility would be built at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas and adjacent to the Nevada Test Site (home of many nuclear bomb tests), despite “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) opposition (2). To date, $37 billion has been collected from power plant operators, and $12 billion has been spent on studies and construction at Yucca Mountain (in addition to potential liability, from breach of contract, of $11 billion by 2020 for missing the 1998 deadline, according to the US Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works) (3), (4). However, no civilian waste has been placed in storage by the US government, as President Obama and the Department of Energy revoked funding from Yucca Mountain in 2010, just prior to licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, because of the combination of NIMBY protests from Nevada (generally from Las Vegas, 90 miles away), campaign promises in Nevada, and the exertion of influence from new Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada (2); instead, waste is still stored onsite at nuclear power plants in “temporary” storage (50% of the US population is within 75 miles of one of these facilities). Failure to address this issue jeopardizes public safety, security, and efficiency.
The most frustrating aspect of these delays is that another part of the US government has provided a successful blueprint to follow. Military nuclear waste (mainly from nuclear bomb design and testing) is disposed of in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), 26 miles east of Carlsbad, NM. Initially opened in 1999 (only 20 years after initial planning started), WIPP is 2,150 feet below the surface, in a 3,000 foot thick layer of salt buried under rock (the thickest in the country). This formation is far more ideal than that in Yucca Mountain-the salt is plastic and closes any cracks over time, by nature does not have water flow, is nowhere near a fault, and conducts heat five times better than volcanic rock (4). In fact, the US government tested using a salt mine for nuclear waste storage as far back as 1963 (3). Initially, WIPP was only used to store low level waste, such as cross-contaminated metallic equipment or gloves, due to lukewarm support at the state level, but recently proposals have been made to add more radioactive items like surplus plutonium triggers. Local residents, all the way to the mayor, have enthusiastically supported its initial construction and expansion because of the jobs and highway funds it brings; a collection of nuclear-related business has appeared in the area as well (5). WIPP has consistently operated safely and under budget since 1999, emptied out 22 facilities used for nuclear waste storage in the past, and stored over 200,000 tons of waste (4), (6).
WIPP-Courtesy of DOE
Given the success and support, the obvious solution to the waste issue would be to either expand WIPP or build a similar facility nearby to store the spent nuclear material from power plants. Considering the rare and strong YIMBY (“Yes In My Back Yard”) response in the community, the ideal geologic conditions, the current impasse on Yucca Mountain, and the studies and design work already done by the military, the solution certainly seems ideal. My opinion, now that I am aware of WIPP’s existence, is that the government should pursue this option as soon as the Yucca Mountain project is officially and legally dead.
Salt Tunneling-Courtesy of DOE
(1) “Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982,” http://epw.senate.gov/nwpa82.pdf
(2) New York Times, “The ‘screw Nevada bill’ and how it stymied U.S. nuclear waste policy,” http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2009/05/11/11climatewire-the-screw-nevada-bill-and-how-it-stymied-us-12208.html?pagewanted=all
(3) Power Magazine, “The US Spent Nuclear Fuel Policy Road to Nowhere,” http://www.powermag.com/nuclear/The-U-S-Spent-Nuclear-Fuel-Policy-Road-to-Nowhere_2651_p5.html
(4) Forbes, “Nuke Us: The Town That Wants America’s Worst Atomic Waste,” http://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2012/01/25/nuke-us-meet-the-town-that-wants-americas-worst-nuclear-waste/
(5) Carlsbad Current-Argus, “Carlsbad residents voice support for WIPP plutonium proposal,” http://www.currentargus.com/ci_21417716/protesters-support-from-occupy-new-mexico-expected-at
(6) Forbes, “Nuclear Waste Gone from Hurricane Sandy’s Path,” http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2012/12/01/nuclear-waste-gone-from-hurricane-sandys-path/