CT CARLEY: New Mexico storage may have ‘WIPPed’ nuclear waste

By C.T. Carley

We know that President Obama has pulled the plug on the Yucca Mountain project therefore leaving us without a permanent facility to store used fuel from nuclear power plants. But in the debate over nuclear waste disposal, less attention has been paid to the fact that the Government already has a deep geologic repository for radioactive waste near Carlsbad, N.M., and the people there say they are willing to consider construction of an even larger repository to store the tons of high level used fuel that was originally intended for burial at Yucca Mountain.
And why not? Nuclear power has delivered much good to society. The shipment and disposal of used fuel in the United States is done safely and efficiently, making the idea attractive enough so that people in Carlsbad see economic advantages in having a national waste repository nearby.
Twenty-six miles from Carlsbad in a salt bed a half-mile underground is a repository called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP. Since it opened in 1999, WIPP has received more than 10,000 shipments of transuranic waste by truck and railroad. Transuranic waste is long-lived, containing small amounts of plutonium and other nuclear materials that must be isolated for very long periods.
The shipments arrive at WIPP three or four times a day. WIPP is run by the U.S. Department of Energy and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the New Mexico Environmental Department.
Siting a waste repository in a salt bed makes good sense. Salt is pliable, flowing like putty, filling up fissures and cracks in the repository and preventing water from seeping in.
Could DOE replicate the process that led to WIPP’s successful construction and operation? Back in the 1970s, when WIPP was first proposed, New Mexicans questioned whether such a facility would be safe. The New Mexico Environmental Evaluation Group was formed. It examined for accuracy every DOE statement, study and report related to the WIPP project. The group asked questions and got answers.
Last year members of a blue ribbon study commission on nuclear waste visited WIPP and came away impressed with the “consent-based approach” that was used to gradually win public approval of the project.
Today, many people in Carlsbad are proud of WIPP. It has generated some 1,300 permanent jobs, including many for scientists and engineers from the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories. Carlsbad now has the lowest unemployment rate in New Mexico. WIPP’s yearly budget is $215 million, and most of the money stays in Carlsbad. Carlsbad’s leaders could inevitably shape the context for any future discussions about locating a repository for high-level nuclear waste in the same salt bed.
According to the DOE there are about 73,000 tons of used fuel stored at nuclear power plants. That includes 730 tons at the Grand Gulf power plant in Port Gibson.
WIPPs success offers the nation a tremendous opportunity to site a deep geologic repository the right way. Only then will we realize fully the benefits of nuclear power as a secure, abundant energy source for good.
C.T. Carley, Ph.D., P.E., is Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering at Mississippi State University. Contact him at ctcarley@bellsouth.net (C.T. Carley).