Solution to nuclear waste storage dilemma?
Community officials in southeast New Mexico want to expand a nuclear-waste storage facility deep inside an ancient salt bed to play a bigger role in handling spent fuel from U.S. reactors, a problem now under the spotlight due to the Japanese nuclear crisis.
After years of delay, the government terminated a plan for a permanent nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Operators at 104 U.S. reactors are storing used fuel rods, which remain radioactive for years, in pools of water and dry cask storage facilities in 30 states.
The largest risk in the United States from the Fukushima event is "overpacking of the spent-fuel pools," said John Heaton, a former state representative from Eddy County, New Mexico, who supports expanded use of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near the town of Carlsbad.
Since 1999, WIPP, an Energy Department program, has disposed of radioactive items from military facilities far below the desert floor in a 250 million-year-old salt bed.
By law, WIPP can only handle defense-generated waste, but Heaton said the geologic formation would be able to handle high-level commercial nuclear waste, pending more study.
"We are convinced more and more every day that we are on the right track," said Heaton.
On Monday, California Senator Dianne Feinstein urged U.S. nuclear regulators to rethink rules that allow spent fuel to remain in pools for long periods of time.
While courts wrestle with arguments over the failed Yucca Mountain plan, the industry awaits a Blue Ribbon Commission's interim report due in July on nuclear-waste disposal options.
Photo shows Sandia Senior Fellow Wendell Weart examining a chunk of salt at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant: Credit: Randy Montoya