First-of-its-kind US nu­clear waste dump marks 20 years

Sun.Star Pampanga - - TECHNEWS! -

Athe repos­i­tory is far from ful­fill­ing its mis­sion.

“It’s 80 per­cent through its life­time, and it has dis­posed of less than 40 per­cent of the waste and has cost more than twice as much as it was sup­posed to,” said Don Hancock with the watch­dog group South­west Re­search and In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter. “How great of a suc­cess is that?”

Of­fi­cials ini­tially thought the fa­cil­ity would op­er­ate for about 25 years. Rather than wrap­ping up in the next few years, man­agers have bumped the time­line to 2050.

The repos­i­tory was carved out of an an­cient salt for­ma­tion about a half-mile (0.8 kilo­me­ter) be­low the sur­face, with the idea that the shift­ing salt would even­tu­ally en­tomb the ra­dioac­tive waste.

It was the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences in the 1950s that first rec­om­mended dis­pos­ing of atomic waste in deep ge­o­logic for­ma­tions. Sci­en­tists be­gan tak­ing a hard look at the New Mex­ico site about two decades later.

The sci­en­tists had to con­vince them­selves and then fed­eral reg­u­la­tors that it was safe. One of their tasks was de­ter­min­ing that the an­cient sea­wa­ter trapped be­tween the salt crys­tals and bound up in thin bands of clay within the salt de­posit would pose no prob­lems thou­sands of years later.

“It was ex­cit­ing to be work­ing on what was then go­ing to be the world’s first deep-ge­o­logic repos­i­tory for that class of waste,” said Pe­ter Swift, a se­nior sci­en­tist at San­dia Na­tional Lab­o­ra­to­ries. “Noth­ing that ra­dioac­tive had been put that deep un­der­ground be­fore. And that’s still true 20 years later.”

While the real test will be what hap­pens gen­er­a­tions from now, Swift is con­fi­dent in the science be­hind the project.

But the wild card in whether the repos­i­tory is ul­ti­mately deemed a suc­cess will be the hu­man fac­tor. Af­ter all, mis­steps by man­age­ment were blamed for the 2014 ra­di­a­tion re­lease.

With some ar­eas per­ma­nently sealed off due to con­tam­i­na­tion, more min­ing will have to be done to ex­pand ca­pac­ity. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment also is spend­ing more than a half­bil­lion dol­lars to in­stall a new ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem, sink more shafts and make other up­grades aimed at re­turn­ing to “nor­mal busi­ness.”

Hancock and some former elected lead­ers in­volved in early dis­cus­sions about the fa­cil­ity worry about the sub­ter­ranean land­fill be­com­ing a dump­ing ground for high-level waste or com­mer­cial nu­clear waste.

But it would take an act of Congress to ex­pand the repos­i­tory’s mis­sion, and get­ting con­sent from New Mex­ico’s del­e­gates would be a tall or­der since the fed­eral gov­ern­ment still has no long-term plan for deal­ing with such waste. Ne­vada’s pro­posed Yucca Moun­tain project is moth­balled, and no other per­ma­nent dis­posal pro­pos­als are on the ta­ble.

Toney Anaya, who served as New Mex­ico gov­er­nor in the 1980s, re­mem­bers the heated de­bates about bring­ing more ra­dioac­tive waste to the state. He said there were con­cerns about safety, but the prom­ise of jobs was at­trac­tive. Some also ar­gued New Mex­ico had a moral obli­ga­tion given its legacy of ura­nium min­ing and its role in the de­vel­op­ment of the atomic bomb.

An­other former gov­er­nor, Bill Richard­son, was on both sides of the tug of war — first as a young Demo­cratic con­gress­man who wanted to im­pose en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards and keep 18-wheel­ers loaded with waste from pass­ing through the heart of Santa Fe. Then, he be­came U.S. en­ergy sec­re­tary dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion and pres­sured the state to clear the way for the repos­i­tory to open.

“For New Mex­ico, we’ve done our share of stor­ing waste, and we’ve done it safely and ef­fec­tively,” Richard­son said. “It’s pro­vided jobs, but I just think the fu­ture of the state is not nu­clear.”

South­east­ern New Mex­ico’s ties to nu­clear run deep and will con­tinue for at least the next 30 years un­der the plans be­ing charted now.

Ro­bust state reg­u­la­tion will be key in en­sur­ing re­spon­si­ble man­age­ment go­ing for­ward, said Hancock, with the watch­dog group. The prob­lem, he said, is that be­sides the Cold War-era waste that has yet to be dealt with, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and nu­clear power plants keep gen­er­at­ing more.

“We need to de­cide what our ca­pac­i­ties are ac­tu­ally go­ing to be — how much nu­clear power waste are we go­ing to create, how much nu­clear weapons waste are we go­ing to create — so that we can then put our arms around the prob­lem,” Hancock said.

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