Friday, August 17, 2012

"Yes, In My Backyard!": A New Mexico Town Wants America's Atomic Waste

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)


Anonymous said...

Quick! Do it before they change their minds. Much better than having this stuff in a fuel pool in california.

Anonymous said...

As far as I know in Japan villages that host npps will stop receiving subsidies after the npp stops generating electric energy; I believe this was mentioned by some NHK program.
Besides, it takes quite a leap of faith to believe that you will keep receiving subsidies until the junk becomes inoffensive (tens of thousands of years, longer than written history).
Maybe folks at Carlsbad feel differently but I would not like my home town (any of them...) to accept nuclear junk. Not even if I were paid good money, not even if my children and my nephews too were granted to be paid good money.

m a x l i said...

From the fact that the salt has lain undisturbed for the last 250 million years the average human mind may conclude that it will continue to do so for the next 250 million years - which might prove foolish in only a few years. What about human activities that cause climate change and change the face of the earth very quickly. New Mexico now has a rather dry climate. It could be very rainy in a hundred years. That could change the conditions for the salt dramatically. Who knows?

Germany has a salt mine ("Asse II") where nuclear waste was being deposited beginning in the 60s. Now, since recent years, we know there is a water inflow. If you have a volume of salt and nuclear waste, where water is flowing in, then you have a situation that somewhere radioactive water is flowing out of that volume - unless that waste is causing a black hole (opportunity for the nuclear shills to throw mud and shout I have no clue...) So, the salt-mine storage, which was meant to be safe for thousands of years, is not safe anymore after less than 50 years. All the waste probably needs to be retrieved (nearly impossible - barrels were dropped from great hights in a chaotic fashion and, in the meantime, are totally corroded - I assume) and put into a better location (nearly impossible as well).

There is no safe or good solution for nuclear waste anywhere. But that doesn't help that we must find solutions that are less bad than others. Stopping to produce more of that deadly stuff in a very short time (let's say next week) might help to make this impossible task a little less impossible.

By the way, that moment you start to drill a hole in that ancient undisturbed salt deposit, it is not undisturbed anymore.

Anonymous said...

Brine inclusions are a known problem for salt dome sequestration. Under pressure water pockets in salt can become mobile and act as a waste transport mechanism. The heat generated by the waste could influence brine movenment. WIPP suffered two brine inclusions early in it's life but since the WIPP facility was for DOE weapons waste these problems were ignored under the guise of future research.

Anonymous said...

According to the book America, New Mexico By Robert Leonard Reid back in 1981 WIPP workers narrowly escaped injury when they broke into a brine inclusion and in 1984 water started seeping into waste storage areas soon after it was becoming evident the tombs were closing at a rate 3 times fast than predicted. In 1989 cracks began to appear in the walls and in 1990 an underground ceiling collapsed and they have continued to prematurely collapse about once a year since then.

WIPP officials downplayed the brine inclusions and in a 1989 EIS they neglected to mention the cracking walls. In 1992 Energy Secretary James Watkins blasted a lawsuit brought against WIPP by the State of New Mexico. It seems the residents of Carlsbad have become addicted to the money WIPP has brought to the community but the state as a whole doesn’t share that enthusiasm.

Anonymous said...

The US actually did limited nuclear and nonnuclear brine inclusion testing during the Project Salt Vault experiment conducted in the Carey Mine Lyons, Kansas. This information was used to justify future exploration of salt domes as a nuclear waste repository but there are studies pointing to major flaws in the methodology of Project Salt Vault.

Like most things nuclear the results were skewed in favor of a project the US military desperately needed to work. Without the WIPP facility they couldn't hide the vast amounts of waste from Hanford, Savannah River, INEEL, Oak ridge and Rocky Flats among other government facilities. Host states were beginning to pressure the government to clean up all these sites and they needed a place to put the waste. In 1989 the FBI raided Rocky Flats and forced it to close for flagrant violations of environmental law the government needed a place to bury the evidence.

"After the June 1989 FBI raid of Rocky Flats, federal authorities used the subsequent grand jury investigation to gather evidence of wrongdoing and then sealed the record. The court allowed the Rocky Flats operators to withhold from the public data about the nature and extent of contamination on and off the site. In October 2006, DOE announced completion of the Rocky Flats cleanup without this information being available"


Anonymous said...

and if the new NRC Chairwoman pushes it forward-they'll all be "PUSSY-WIPP'ed"

Post a Comment