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Got Nuclear Waste? We’ll Take It!

imageOver the past few weeks, the people of Carlsbad, N.M., have been busy making one thing known: they want the United States’ nuclear waste and they want it bad.

Their support is being driven by recommendations released last week from the Obama administration’s blue ribbon commission on how to fix the nation’s nuclear waste management program. Most noteworthy for the people of Carlsbad is the recommendation by the commission that the United States pursue a “consent-based approach,” where local communities are engaged in the project from the beginning so that they avoid a situation where politics later trump progress on a much-needed repository (*cough* Yucca Mountain *cough*). My colleague Mark Flanagan explained this approach and the reasoning behind it on the blog last week.

Carlsbad is unique from any other area of the country because it is home to salt beds, an ideal burial place for transuranic waste because of its self-sealing qualities, which is why the U.S. Department of Energy built its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) there in the 1980s, a project that has garnered a lot of community support. Here’s what a DOE fact sheet has to say about the geologic conditions at the site:
Bedded salt is free of fresh flowing water, easily mined, impermeable and geologically stable—an ideal medium for permanently isolating long-lived radioactive wastes from the environment.

Throughout the 1960s, government scientists searched for an appropriate site for radioactive waste disposal, eventually testing a remote desert area of southeastern New Mexico where, 250 million years earlier, evaporation cycles of the ancient Permian Sea had created a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed.
Because of its unique geologic qualities and growing community support, Carlsbad and Eddy County officials this past Saturday joined together in offering New Mexico’s salt beds as a final destination for U.S. high-level radioactive waste.
"Eddy County has proven that involving local governments and citizens in the planning and oversight process leads to a successful mission. Community support and involvement in every step of the process, especially emergency services and transportation, is absolutely essential." said Roxanne Lara, Eddy County Commissioner and Energy Communities Alliance Secretary. "The BRC recognized the importance of this model. The bottom line is that Southeast New Mexico has the knowledge, the location and the desire to be a solution to this nation's nuclear waste problem. Let's get moving."
The blue ribbon commission, although not tasked with the responsibility of picking a site to hold the nation’s nuclear waste, echoed some of the positive aspects of the Carlsbad site in their report:
The crucial difference in the WIPP case [from Yucca Mountain] was the presence—also from the outset—of a supportive host community and of a state government that was willing to remain engaged. Starting in the early 1970s and continuing to the present, elected officials and other local leaders in and around the WIPP site, particularly in the Carlsbad business community, made it very clear that they approved of the development and use of the facility to dispose of defense TRU wastes. This unwavering local support helped to sustain the project during periods when federal and state agencies had to work through disagreements over issues such as the nature of the wastes to be disposed, the role of different entities in providing oversight, and the standards that the facility would be required to meet.
(They also provided an overview of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on page 21.)

Not only does the Carlsbad community have the know-how and the right environment to support a nuclear waste repository, but they also view it as a way to boost the local economy, which is a major contributing factor to their overall support. A recent Forbes piece captures it perfectly:
This attitude—“Yes in my backyard,” if you will—has brought near permanent prosperity to this isolated spot that until recently had no endemic economic engine. Unemployment sits at 3.8%, versus 6.5% statewide and 8.5% nationally. And thanks to this project—euphemistically known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP—New Mexico has received more than $300 million in federal highway funds in the past decade, $100 million of which has gone into the roads around Carlsbad.
Before WIPP the area’s economy was mostly limited to potash mining, oil and gas drilling, and a passel of tourists stopping on the way to ­Carlsbad Caverns, an hour south. The Department of Energy’s $6 billion program created 1,300 permanent jobs, many of them high-paid engineering positions. Energy’s annual budget for WIPP is $215 million, much of which stays in the community as wages.
The surrounding communities are not only supportive about accepting the nation’s nuclear waste, Forbes said they have “doubled down” on the opportunity:
The leaders of neighboring Lea and Eddy counties have doubled down on the nuke biz, establishing a 1,000-acre atomic industrial park. ­Already uranium fuel maker Uren­co Group has built a $3 billion fabrication plant there, employing 300.
Now they’re seeking to build a surface-level facility to store used nuclear fuel rods in 100-ton, 15-foot-tall steel-and-concrete casks.
Given that the community and local leaders support developing a nuclear waste repository, what’s the hold up? Forbes explains:
Even if the money’s there, and the will, there’s still a lingering question of how the salt would react when in contact with canisters of high-level waste, 600 degrees hot.
Trapped within the salt are microscopic pockets of 250-million-year-old seawater. Because heat increases the solubility of salt in water, the more heat, the more salt dissolved. One theory suggests that high heat will attract nearby water toward the waste canisters, potentially corroding them. Ned Elkins, Los Alamos lab’s chief salt repository scientist, who works at WIPP, says all current modeling indicates that neither the heat nor water should pose any significant problems, “but we have to let the science speak for itself, to erase all doubt.” The DOE has begun a $40 million study to prove it out, but conclusive results will take at least three years.
Letting science dictate policy sounds like a good idea to me, so I guess it’s a wait and see game to determine if the site is technically qualified. Either way, it is encouraging to see that there are American communities out there that are willing to accept the nation’s nuclear waste and stand determined to make their case known.

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(For an interesting read, check out Spiegel Online to see how Sweden was able to build community support for its permanent nuclear waste repository and actually had to choose between two willing host communities. The blue ribbon commission visited Sweden during the course of its two-year evaluation and believes it to be a good example for how a country can sustain public trust and confidence to see a facility through to completion.)

Photo: Photograph taken by Chip Simons and featured in Forbes’ “Nuke Us!”

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