An article that appeared in Forbes in January this year introduces to us a town in New Mexico, Carlsbad, which has prospered by accepting plutonium-laden atomic waste from nuclear weapons production. The town wants more.
According to the article, Carlsbad's unique geological feature - the town sits atop the largest salt deposit in America (from 250 million years ago, 3,000-foot thick) - is much more superior to the Yucca Mountain with volcanic tuff, when it comes to storing highly radioactive nuclear waste and keep it there for eternity.
The town has benefited tremendously from accepting the nuclear waste. Business is thriving, unemployment rate is less than half the national average, thanks to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the nation's only permanent, deep geological repository for nuclear waste.
From Forbes (1/25/2012; emphasis is mine):
Nuke Us: The Town That Wants America's Worst Atomic Waste
by Christopher Helman
There’s a secure solution to America’s nuclear waste problem: bury it under Carlsbad, New Mexico. The locals are ready — if only Washington would get out of the way.
Bob Forrest is known for a lot of things in Carlsbad, a quiet city of 25,000 on the edge of New Mexico’s empty, endless Chihuahuan Desert. He was mayor here for 16 years. He’s chairman of the local bank and owns the spanking new Fairfield Inn, which sits next to the new Chili’s and the new Wal-Mart. And he helped bring 200,000 tons of deadly nuclear waste to town.
That’s not a bad thing—at least not here. Unlike thousands of other places in America, where the thought of trucking in barrels of radioactive garbage from atomic weapons plants would lead to marches, face paint and, invariably, pandering politicians (witness Nevada’s stalled Yucca Mountain project), Carlsbad has a different take. “It’s really a labor of love,” says Forrest. “We’ve proven that nuclear waste can be disposed of in a safe, reliable way.”
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. WIPP is the nation’s only permanent, deep geologic repository for nuclear waste. The roads have to be good for the two dozen trucks a week hauling in radioactive drums brimming with the plutonium-laden detritus of America’s nuclear weapons production.
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 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. More amenities followed, too: In November Carlsbad inaugurated the Bob Forrest Youth Sports Complex. “We are not blinded by the jobs,” says John Waters, director of the department of economic development for Eddy County. “We know what we have. We know the risks. We have a very educated public.”
But if Carlsbad’s story showcases the upside of being willing to do the nation’s dirty work, it also demonstrates how difficult it can be to get the chance to do so. Since opening in 1999, WIPP has operated so smoothly and safely that Carlsbad is lobbying the feds to expand the project to take the nuclear mother lode: 160,000 more tons of the worst high-level nuclear waste in the country—things like the half-melted reactor core of Three Mile Island and old nuclear fuel rods—that are residing at aging nuke plants a short drive from wherever you’re sitting right now.
Yet thanks to politics even more radioactive than the material itself, it hasn’t happened yet and might not happen anytime soon. Though taxpayers have already spent some $12 billion mining out and engineering Yucca Mountain, 90 miles from Las Vegas, power brokers in Nevada fought the congressionally approved project from the get-go. Bowing to Nimby—and Nevada’s powerful Senator Harry Reid—two years ago President Barack Obama’s Administration declared Yucca DOA. Contractors have since laid off some 1,000 workers there.
To seek some common ground Obama then set up the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The BRC, as it’s known, is tasked with looking at all the options. It likes WIPP—a lot. According to its draft report last summer the BRC will insist that a “consent-based approach” be applied to any future site selection. WIPP, it wrote, is a model of how that can be done.
Cue the politics. New Mexico, in agreeing to WIPP, required that Congress enshrine in law a promise that the feds would not send high-level waste into the state. WIPP won’t be the next Yucca unless that issue is wrangled, and reversed, by Albuquerque, Washington or anyone else with skin in the game. If they pay any attention, that is. “I’m absolutely incredulous that so few opinion makers even know that WIPP exists,” says former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, who sits on the BRC and is a friend of Forrest.
Still, science appears to be on the boosters’ side. Carlsbad has a Goldilocks geology that is the best solution yet found for entombing nuclear waste safely. Yucca Mountain’s volcanic tuff is prone to cracks and faults from seismic activity, which might, over thousands of years, let water seep in. Salt, on the other hand, is nearly impervious to seismic activity, quickly healing any cracks or faults and remaining completely impermeable—with no way for any water to get in or for any radiation to escape. Carlsbad sits atop the biggest salt deposit in America, stretching from New Mexico clear to Kansas. It was deposited 250 million years ago in the Permian period, when the seas receded from the shore of the ancient continent Pangea. The salt has lain undisturbed ever since.
In the 1970s the Department of Energy floated the idea of mining out a nuclear repository in the salt under centrally located Lyons, Kans. The people didn’t want it; Three Mile Island didn’t help. Carlsbad made more sense; its 3,000-foot salt layer is the thickest in the country. And the state has a nuclear history as home to the Manhattan Project. The Los Alamos and Sandia national labs continue to do a lot of nuclear work. What’s more, the people of Carlsbad know salt; they’ve been mining it since 1930 to go after seams of potash—a mineral in high demand as fertilizer.
(Full article at the link)
Japan would be envious.
By the way, the new NRC chairwoman that President Obama appointed was a member of that Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future. As a geologist, she should see the great potential for Carlsbad's WIPP. Maybe the townspeople will soon get their wish.
(H/T reader Atomfritz)