Thursday, March 31, 2016

DOE Decides to Bury Its Waste

 To be or not to be, that is the question!  Is the waste to be buried or the waste to be burned?

The DOE announced yesterday its intention to go forward with its plan to bury 6 metric tons (MT) of weapons grade, non-pit, plutonium at its WIPP site, in Carlsbad, New Mexico. This will be weapons grade plutonium obtained from a variety of sources, some of which are foreign. DOE's announcement refers to the down-blending methodology to be used, which may include conversion of the plutonium metal to an oxide powder, mixing with non-fissile isotopes of plutonium-oxide, and combining with other contaminants as well. (Final Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (Final SPD Supplemental EIS) (DOE/EIS-0283-S2, April 2015))

The DOE notes that its down-blending procedure renders the weapons-grade plutonium "not readily usable" for nuclear weapons; i.e., not without first removing the contaminants and chemically reducing the plutonium-oxide back to metal; in my opinion, not a very daunting process. Nevertheless, the Administration asserts that DOE's plan will make a significant contribution to nuclear non-proliferation. Hmm!

 DOE/NNSA Undersecretary for Nuclear Security Frank Klotz signed the decision on the plutonium plan Wednesday, saying WIPP has a “proven process” for storing this type of waste stream; viz., it already has received 5 metric tons of surplus plutonium from the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado and the Hanford Site in Washington.

 New Mexico Governor S. Martinez has been quoted in the press as saying that she would welcome this latest addition to WIPP's inventory; i.e., as soon as DOE agrees that WIPP, now closed for emergency repairs, can be reopened. No surprise there!

 However, DOE does not refer to the fact that their latest scheme for dispositioning surplus plutonium does not accord with the agreement arrived at years ago with the Russians to permanently dispose of surplus plutonium by burning it in specially designed nuclear reactors. It seems that the present Administration has decided that it is simply too expensive now to go ahead with that program; but, no mention is made of what the Russians may do as a result.

 Meanwhile, the question remains of how to dispose of an additional 7 MT of plutonium from nuclear weapons pits. If the Administration is successful with its present plan, then it may be encouraged to bury this next installment of surplus plutonium at WIPP.

 For the future, and of great potential concern to the citizens of New Mexico, the next Administration will have to grapple again with the problem of the disposition of high-level waste from nuclear power plants. Perhaps DOE will push  to bury this dangerous long-lived waste at WIPP too. If so, then perhaps New Mexico's two US Senators will manage to push back?

Concerning the Obama administration's work on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and/or the achievement of nuclear weapons security for the USA, here are excerpts from an article in today's NYT:

As Obama Hosts Nuclear Security Summit, the Focus Is on China

MARCH 31, 2016

WASHINGTON — President Obama gathered more than 50 world leaders here on Thursday to discuss one of his favorite topics: locking down nuclear weapons.

“The entire premise of American foreign policy as it relates to nuclear weapons for the last 70 years has been focused on preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, deputy national security advisor, said. “That has been the position of bipartisan administrations, of everybody who has occupied the Oval Office.”

However, domestic politics and regional concerns both seemed to crowd out any discussion of global efforts to secure nuclear materials.

The terrorist attack in Belgium last week also cast a shadow over the gathering, particularly after reports that fighters for the Islamic State were seeking to penetrate a nuclear facility to obtain material for a so-called radioactive dirty bomb.

While the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, supports Mr. Obama’s nonproliferation policies, she has evinced little of his fervor for a nuclear-free world.

But as the leaders arrived for a dinner at the White House past an honor guard lined up along the South Lawn, Mr. Obama could claim one achievement: An amendment to a treaty that stiffens standards for protecting nuclear materials was signed by 102 nations.

The original protection agreement dates to 1987, but it has long been considered weak. The amendment, proposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, specifies minimum requirements for physical protection of civilian nuclear stocks, and for securing them when they are transported.

As part of an effort to be more open about its nuclear inventory, the United States announced that its stockpile of highly enriched uranium declined 20 percent, to 585.6 metric tons in 2013 from 740.7 metric tons in 1996. The decline was modest, but it was the first time in 15 years that the government released these numbers.

A senior administration official, who declined to speak on the record ahead of the president’s announcement, said that the amendments to the physical protection agreement are “the closest thing we have to legally binding standards for nuclear security.”

So, concerning the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and/or the achievement of nuclear weapons security for the USA, it seems that very modest progress has been made, but that the underlying existential threat remains. In summary, it is fair to say, in the words of the Poet::

And thus the native hue of resolution
is sicklied over, with the pale cast of thought,
and enterprises of great pitch and moment,
with this regard their currents turn awry,
and lose the name of action.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

DOE Declares a Preference

On December 30, 2015, I received a postcard in the US mail from the Department of Energy, announcing:

                                       "Notice of Preferred Alternative"
    "Final Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement"

which refers to the latest addition to an accumulation of documents which began as a trickle in 1996, and surged ahead in 2007, regarding the disposition of Pu declared surplus from the United States nuclear weapons program. The postcard also directs attention to the following DOE web address:

Wherein lies a multi-volume collection of historical observations, past and present ruminations and speculative conclusions, relating to the disposition of surplus US plutonium. But, this can be boiled down to just a few essentials:

1) On 24 Dec, 2015, DOE announced that:

"With regard to the 6 metric tons (6.6 tons) of surplus non-pit plutonium, DOE/NNSA’s Preferred Alternative is to prepare this plutonium for eventual disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico."

Presumably, the Pu waste would be prepared in a mixed state, thus deterring theft and later recovery as weapons usable Pu; or at least deterring it a little.  And maybe the actual mixing operation could be defined and carried out at LANL, whose management (LANS-LLC) has already learned how to  prepare mixtures for disposal at WIPP!

2) Unfortunately, DOE says that it does not know when, if ever, WIPP will be reopened for business; a small problem. And, they want to remind us that,

  " ... DOE’s recovery effort [continues] at the DOE Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) following two February 2014 incidents at the facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico."

3) Finally, disappointingly, DOE still does not know what to do with 34 metric tons of weapons-grade Pu, to be obtained from decommissioned, disabled, and disassembled nuclear weapons. This is the surplus Pu concerning which the US agreed with the Russian Federation, in 2007, to dispose of by converting to MOX fuel and burning in nuclear reactors. That is, according to DOE,

  " ... the Plutonium Management Disposition Agreement [2007] between the USA and the Russian Federation calls for each nation to dispose of no less than 34 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade Pu by irradiating it as MOX fuel in nuclear reactors or by any other method that may be agreed by the Parties in writing."

But, let's not forget that, in 2013, a presidential commission was created to suggest ways to avoid having to carry out this agreement, at least insofar as the burning of MOX fuel was concerned, which was turning out to be very costly in  dollars, as well as in political capital. Now the commission has reported back their conclusions (Report of the Plutonium Disposition Working Group, April 2014) but there is still no action on the part of DOE, or of the Administration. Well, darn! Some things are really just too hard!

Clearly, the surplus Pu conundrum bedevils this Administration, will probably plague the next Administration, and perhaps the one after that too.

Meanwhile, come all you young scholars and gather round for a really good read, courtesy of DOE:

Thursday, December 17, 2015

NAS Misleads on Peer Review at Nuke Labs

Regarding the recent report of a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine entitled "Peer Review in the Nuclear Weapons Laboratories":

Opinions expressed in this report suggest an unwarranted enthusiasm for nuclear weapons on the part of the NAS committee. Perhaps this bias was imposed by members of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which was the "sponsor" of the committee's work. (See news article in Physics Today, issue of Dec, 2015, quoting NNSA's chief scientist, Dimitri Kusnezov, regarding the NAS report: "How do you take the best out of this in terms of enhancing peer review ... against the backdrop that the decisions are not entirely ours to make ...  .  Because the work we do sits at the intersection of science and policy.")

 In particular, I refer to Conclusion 4 and Recommendation 4 of the committee, which are (quoting from the committee's report):

 "In contrast to the robust state of peer review at the NNSA laboratories, the state of design competition is not robust."

 "In order to exercise the full set of design skills necessary for an effective nuclear deterrent, the NNSA should develop and propose the first in what the committee envisions as a series of design competitions that include designing, engineering, building, and non-nuclear testing of a prototype. The non-nuclear components produced by Sandia should be integrated into the design and fabrication of the prototype. This should be done with the clear understanding that this prototype would not enter the stockpile."

 "The committee is deeply concerned about the state of design competition at all three laboratories. There have been no full design competitions for Nuclear Explosive Packages (NEPs) since the 1992 moratorium on the testing of nuclear explosions. The Department of Defense (DOD) has not asked for any fundamentally new warhead designs, and for a considerable time Congress limited work on new designs."

 However, as the committee makes clear in its report, their advised  new design ought to be inspired by real military requirements, arising from real  military doctrine.

 Furthermore, when the United states became a signatory to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970 it promised to: 1) work to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons in its arsenal; 2) work to reduce the importance of nuclear weapons in its military doctrine; 3) cooperate in negotiating the elimination of nuclear weapons from the arsenals of all nations. Naturally, the success of 3) would depend upon sustainable progress being made toward 1) and 2).

 In this context, it is difficult to see why the US would authorize its national laboratories to proceed toward a new nuclear weapon design, one that was connected to a new military mission, or one that was a "novel design to address a threat", as proposed by the committee in footnote 2, on p4 of its report.

  In fact, Congress's enabling legislation, to which the Committee, alludes (Public Law 112-239, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, Sec. 3144.), asks for guidance on peer review and design competition, as presently practiced at the nuclear weapons laboratories, but does not suggest that the committee consider the question of a new nuclear weapon design.

 It appears that by making its Recommendation #4 the committee has slipped into the field of politics. This may have been an honest blunder on the part of the committee, or a deliberate step in response to a portion of its mandate not included in its report; e.g., explicit instructions received from the NNSA, which was the "sponsor" of the study.

  In my opinion, this attempt by the committee to bolster one side of the ongoing political debate concerning the nature of the work performed by the nuclear weapons laboratories is ill-advised and diminishes the value of technical judgments contained in their report.

 For another sign of the committee's bias, see their remark on p52, under "Summary Comments: "Implementation of the above four recommendations would help ensure that the most important asset - a competent workforce with demonstrated skills and judgment - is being developed and maintained and that all stakeholders (including our adversaries) have confidence in that workforce."

  The committee's suggestion that "our adversaries" would be deterred if we develop new nuclear weapons designs hearkens back to the Cold war, and could only deter the building of trust between nations needed to move toward world-wide nuclear disarmament, as envisaged by the NPT.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Manhattan Project National Historical Park

An article in the Los Alamos Monitor today described the latest developments in the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Summarizing from this article:

"The Manhattan Project National Historical Park passes another milestone Tuesday when Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz sign a memorandum of agreement formally establishing the Park."

"The Park is the culmination of 10 years of effort by the three communities included within its boundaries: Los Alamos, New Mexico, Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash."

Concerning which I am moved to wonder:

What should the Manhattan Project National Historical Park memorialize and what should it attempt to teach  to future visitors?

1) That the march of science toward the discovery of new sources of energy, combined with unstoppable advances in military technology, have enabled the creation of ever more powerful weapons. Today, this unfortunate ongoing synergy makes it seem likely that the next global war will involve the destruction of larger civilian populations than before, and will create even more human suffering than before.

2) The Manhattan Project enabled the quick death by incineration and the slow death by radiation poisoning of ~200,000 civilian residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a triumph of science and technology since this slaughter occurred during just two air raids, in each of which only one bomb was dropped. Of course, we shouldn't forget the earlier deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in both Japan and Germany by allied bombing raids, in which thousands of conventional incendiary bombs were dropped. We continue today to justify these attacks by proclaiming that "war is hell" and that, anyway, it was the Japanese and the Germans who started it.

3) Moving beyond WW II, the Manhattan Project enabled the creation of a Balance of Terror which weighed on civilian psychologies during the Cold War (1950-1990) and under which the entire world continues to labor today. One has only to try to imagine the magnitude of the misery that the next global war will produce, perhaps involving nuclear weapons attacks on major population centers, to know the reason for this lack of martial fervor on the part of the world's nervous Neds and Nellies.

But, perhaps this is also a reason to think that wars of the future will be of limited extent and that global wars are a thing of the past. Albert Einstein himself said that he thought that this would have to be so if mankind was to survive; however, there is no guarantee that it will be so. Moreover, considering the history of politics and of warfare, it doesn't seem very likely.

Looking at this question more abstractly, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn pointed out in his last book, that the future is unknown, and may not be peaceful, unless politicians strive continually to maintain the peace. Or, as Karl Marx put it, ~150 years ago: the future may be one of socialism or barbarism, dependent upon politics and politicians.

Today, politics has led to the commissioning of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. But, will politicians be able to force inclusion in the Park of material describing the dark side of the nuclear fire unleashed at Los Alamos?

More concretely, how will future visitors to the  Manhattan Project National Historical Park feel about American  ingenuity if the barbarians of ISIS obtain a weapon akin to the one first built at Los Alamos in 1945? Will they be proud or will they be ashamed? Will they be gratified or will they be horrified?

Saturday, August 22, 2015

To MOX or Not to MOX

The Santa Fe New Mexican published an article today by Patrick Malone describing a recent Union of Concerned Scientists report entitled, "DOE Study Concludes MOX Facility More Expensive, Much Riskier than Disposing of Surplus Plutonium at New Mexico Repository." In this article, related concerns of some New Mexico citizens regarding the WIPP site were also discussed.

Considering the by now well-known options of whether to MOX or to bury, one can say with confidence that both the technical and political complexities of either option are large. However, an important part of the problem of changing now from MOX to burial is that the agreement previously arrived at with the Russians would have to be breached or renegotiated; namely, according to that agreement, Pu disposition must be irreversible, and underground storage, even with so-called down-blending, would not be so.

Moreover, it seems to me peculiar that the anti-nuclear groups, in their apparent zeal to thwart an advantage to the nuclear power industry provided by a continuation of the MOX program, would be willing  to promote underground burial of Pu when underground burial itself has two clear disadvantages: 1) burial, even of down-blended material, is reversible so that the Pu could be resurrected and reconstituted at some future time, perhaps for use in some future nuclear war; 2) burial of any radioactive and/or toxic chemical waste involves environmental hazards.

It's hard for me to understand their view but, to some, it seems that nuclear power is a clearer threat than nuclear weaponry.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Nuclear Energy & Democracy

The democratic process is one in which ordinary citizens become involved in issues of government. For example, there are important issues deriving from scientific research. In particular, experience has shown that some scientific discoveries, the result of government sponsored research,  can have negative impacts. The New York Times recently addressed this subject in four short opinion pieces:

NYT /28 May, 2015
\direct quote\
Alexander M. Capron
The Lessons of Asilomar for Today’s Science
Four decades ago, concerns about the science of recombinant DNA led to a global moratorium on cutting-edge research.

Alta Charo
The Case of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
By getting ahead of the technology, the scientific community established a norm that is still observed by most in the U.S. and abroad.

Pilar Ossorio
The Role of Patents in Limiting Scientific Research
The existence of a patent could let an institution prevent some uses of the invention that are deemed unethical.

Celia Wexler
Bring Back the Office of Technology Assessment
The information that office provided was used by both parties to make smart and applicable regulation.

 Another example of problematic scientific research is that of government sponsored research into nuclear energy; viz., some of the uses to which nuclear energy have been put have been fraught, to say the least.

 In 1943, in the midst of a world war, the US federal government decided that the creation of a nuclear weapon was both possible and prudent. Two years later, that weapon was used to bring the war in the Pacific to a close, but at the cost of the lives of ~200,000 Japanese citizens. It is still argued today that that was an acceptable, even good, outcome since the number of battlefield deaths resulting from an American invasion of the Japanese homeland would have been far greater. Perhaps.

 Nevertheless, and as an expression of the law of unintended consequences, the world today is divided between those countries that possess an arsenal of nuclear weapons and those that don't. Among those countries that have nuclear weapons, there seems to be an insatiable desire to have better nuclear weapons, and in some cases, to have more nuclear weapons. Among those countries still without nuclear weapons, there are those that seem to be working toward the construction of their own nuclear arsenal.

 It is said that no one in their right mind wants a nuclear war; nevertheless, preparations to fight and win nuclear wars seem to be  widespread. It is also said that increasing numbers of hate-filled non-state actors aspire to exterminate their enemies by exploding nuclear bombs. However, the more that nuclear bombs are accepted as the currency of national defense, and the more that the science and technology of nuclear weapons becomes a common scientific currency, then the more likely it seems that a nuclear weapon will find its way into the hands of an eccentric.

 While trying to cope with this nuclear weapons conundrum, the US federal government has decided to celebrate. The sites where the original nuclear weapons were created, at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and in Hanford, Washington, will be turned into US national parks where all the world can assemble and marvel at the power of American ingenuity, and the unintended consequences of nuclear technology be damned!

 And then there is the unresolved problem of the long-term storage of waste from the nuclear weapons industry and from nuclear power plants. Recently, this has been the subject of reports by New Mexico media elements.
Rio Grande Sun 27 May, 2015
Sherry Robinson Commentary

"Nuclear Waste still a confounding issue"
In early 1990's, Mescalero Apache's considered contracting with the federal gov't to store hi-level nuclear waste on tribal land. However, a strong pro-waste faction led by the tribal president Wendell Chino was unable to overcome the objections of a determined anti-waste faction. Finally, US Senator from NM, Jeff Bingaman, intervened by "pulling the plug on federal funding."

Today, Holtec International is attempting to contract with the federal government, and with Eddy and Lea Counties in NM, to store hi-level nuclear waste, on an interim basis, at a site within 10 miles of the WIPP site. The NM State government led by Governor Susanna Martinez supports this proposal; however, NM's two US Senators are opposed.
\direct quote\
Nuclear Energy Institute
Contact:, 202.739.8000 or 703.644.8805 (after hours and weekends)

NEI Congratulates Holtec and NM Counties on Consent-Based Used Fuel Storage Solution
WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Nuclear Energy Institute today welcomed a consent-based approach in New Mexico to manage used nuclear fuel from U.S. commercial reactors. Holtec International announced a memorandum of agreement with two New Mexico counties to establish a consolidated interim storage facility in southeastern New Mexico.

The announcement took place in Albuquerque and included support from New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. Earlier this year, Texas-based Waste Control Specialists announced its intent to design and license an interim consolidated storage facility that could be used by the federal government to store commercial used nuclear fuel until a federal disposal facility becomes operational.

Holtec’s agreement with the Eddy and Lea counties in New Mexico will include the design, licensing, construction, and operation of an interim used fuel storage facility modeled on Holtec’s HI-STORM UMAX storage system, which stores high-level radioactive waste in steel and concrete containers below ground. The agreement would develop an interim site “to store all of the used nuclear fuel produced in the United States and all canisters currently licensed in dry storage in the country.”

NEI Senior Vice President for Governmental Affairs Alex Flint told the Albuquerque community today that it has a special history and understanding for meeting so significant a policy challenge.

“The nuclear industry has tremendous respect for the political leaders in New Mexico, who for years have been at the forefront of understanding nuclear issues. Where others see challenges, they see opportunities. That has been New Mexico’s history since the beginning of the nuclear era. This is one more example of New Mexicans who see an opportunity to lead by creating a valuable business.

“The United States needs a sound used fuel program. That program should include a permanent geologic repository and consolidated storage, developed concurrently.”

In articulating support for her state as a willing host site, Martinez, in an April 10 letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, said that, “There is a significant and growing national need for such an interim storage facility. Millions of taxpayer dollars are currently being spent on monitoring and oversight of spent fuel each year, and millions more are being spent on settlement payments related to waste disposition.”

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the total liability for the federal government for its failure to manage used nuclear fuel at $27.1 billion, including $4.5 billion already paid out of the U.S. Treasury’s Judgment Fund. This estimate assumes that the DOE begins accepting used nuclear fuel in 2021. The agency has contracts with energy companies to take uranium fuel from nuclear energy facilities for disposal.
\direct quote\
Nuclear Storage May Be Coming to Hobbs

May 01, 2015
By Zora Asberry
NewsWest 9

HOBBS - The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance are partnering with Holtec International to make Lea County the site for nuclear storage of spent rods.

The proposed nuclear waste site would be 35 miles west of Hobbs and 35 miles east of Carlsbad. Moving forward, Eddy and Lea County hope that the site will bring great economic opportunities to the area.

Despite the revenue and jobs the proposed facility could bring, some residents of Hobbs aren't sure they want to have nuclear storage in their city.

"I'm not well informed on that but it is scary to know that that is coming to our town," said Hobbs Resident, Mena Ramos."I'm a little afraid, a little uneasy. I would like to know more about it. Maybe we'll have a commissioners meeting or something like that to check on it," said Carol Luck, another resident of Hobbs.

Sam Cobb, Mayor of Hobbs, says that a lot of people have coined the term "waste" but that is far from what the facility will do.

They hope to store spent fuel rods that will be recycled into nuclear energy in the future.

"These canisters have been tested for head on collisions at 60 miles per hour so I think the two most important things are that it's not waste and it's going to be contained in the safest containers we can currently provide," said Cobb.

Holtec International chose the site because of its geological stability, as it will be just 10 miles from the already established WIPP Plant.

By bringing nuclear interim storage to Hobbs, it will also bring a great deal of revenue to the Lea County.

"We can use that revenue for economic development, local infrastructure, quality of life project and those kind of things. We think it's a great opportunity for use to have a sustainable stream of revenue," said Cobb.
\direct quote\
Editorial: Southeast NM could lead in nuclear waste storage

By Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board
PUBLISHED: Sunday, May 3, 2015

At some point the leaders of the free world are going to have to stop kicking the radiation canister down the road and pick a real nuclear waste storage site.

Because continuing to allow the nation’s nuclear waste to be kept in temporary facilities in 39 states – some sites adjacent to rivers or on top of water tables – is irresponsible at best.

For the second time in three years, southeastern New Mexico has stepped up to offer an arid, sparsely populated, underground site for some of the country’s more than 70,000 metric tons of used reactor fuel. Lea and Eddy counties and the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs have signed a memorandum of agreement with Holtec International Inc.

The company already owns the 32 acres the proposed depository would sit on, will cover the $80 million licensing process and $200 million in first-phase building operations, and could expand to equal all the planned storage capacity at the politically shuttered $15 billion Yucca Mountain storage site.

Despite widespread support by those who live in the area, New Mexico’s senators in Washington, D.C., are against private enterprise investing hundreds of millions of dollars in their state and on behalf of their nation’s security. It’s disappointing but not surprising; their former majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has kept underground storage facility Yucca Mountain in limbo for decades, using various appointment and appropriation movidas to keep its 2008 licensing application on hold at a $15 billion cost to taxpayers.

Sen. Martin Heinrich wants to delay any interim site here “until we are sure that there will be a path forward to permanent disposal.” And Sen. Tom Udall says, “I don’t think we should be talking about this at all while the state and the Department of Energy are still addressing the serious accident and radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.”

Yet both must know the Holtec “interim” site is designed for 100-year storage, that a “path forward to permanent disposal” has been blocked by Reid and that a significant, non-carbon-producing energy source continues to churn out radioactive waste from power plants across the nation, and that waste has to go somewhere.

On the same day Heinrich and Udall voiced their opposition, the state and DOE cut a $73 million deal regarding WIPP and agreed the problems that led to the radiation release – and low levels of contamination – occurred at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the canisters were packed, not at WIPP, where they were stored.

That Holtec has a 35-year safety record in this business and uses containers that can withstand direct artillery strikes and the potential impact of two rail cars smashing head-on into each other at 60 mph, and that those containers in turn will be stored in concrete cavities that can withstand a crashing aircraft or a missile attack, speaks to the safety and security of the proposed operation and should allay WIPP leak critics.

And that a company considered a major player in the global spent-fuel storage industry is interested in southeastern New Mexico speaks to the region’s terrain and expertise. The proposed site is dry and desolate, situated between Carlsbad and Hobbs, about 12 miles north of WIPP and in the so-called nuclear alley that includes the $4 billion Urenco USA uranium enrichment plant in Eunice, a proposed $100 million International Isotopes plant to process spent uranium from the Urenco plant, and a proposed spent-fuel storage facility run by Waste Control Specialists and French firm AREVA Inc just across the Texas state line. (It’s of note AREVA wanted to partner with southeastern New Mexico in 2012 but has since decided the grass is greener in Texas and will instead be competing with New Mexico and Holtec.)

Licensing the Holtec site is expected to take at least three years, and legal clarification is needed on allowing the company to transport and store spent fuel at an interim site. Heinrich and Udall could take leadership roles and ensure New Mexico is at the forefront of this part of the new energy economy – as they have done with wind and solar.

Or they can stick with the group that keeps kicking the radiation canister down the road.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.
For more discussion of  the interesting subject of nuclear waste management, see my previous blogpost, "DOE Holds Forth." The technical difficulties being experienced here partly derive from our inability to predict the distant future, and are another example of the law of unintended consequences. That the political problems being encountered here are a case of the NIMBY phenomenon seems clear.

The Obama Administration is attempting to deal with the technical problems by delegating more responsibility to the DOE (paving a technical path toward a politically acceptable solution,) and with the political problems by advocating for more democratic action (opening a political path toward a technically achievable solution.) We'll see how that goes.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

DOE Holds Forth

For much interesting chat concerning the world of nuclear waste, see: Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz's remarks on “A Look Back on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future,” dated March 24, 2015.

Abstracted from these remarks are these summarized facts, all according to DOE:

1. The DOE is committed to sustaining nuclear energy’s role in America’s low carbon future.

2. Part of that commitment is offering solutions for the disposition of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste based upon the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission for America's Nuclear Future (Final Report, 26 January, 2012.)

3. Any workable solution for the final disposition of used fuel and nuclear waste must be based not only on sound science but also on achieving public acceptance at the local, and state and tribal levels.

4. Today, President Obama authorized the Energy Department to move forward with planning for a separate repository for high-level radioactive waste resulting from atomic energy defense activities.

Concerning which remarks, the following are my own (KL's) comments:

1. DOE claims to be "committed to sustaining nuclear energy's role in America's low carbon future," but DOE seems to be doing precious little to promote this claim. While the number of operating nuclear power plants in the U. S. continues to decline, DOE shuttered the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, before any nuclear waste could actually be delivered but after $ billions had been spent to prepare the site.

Moreover, DOE has back-pedaled on previously agreed upon plans to burn MOX fuel in TVA nuclear reactors, at once foregoing possible technical advances in commercial nuclear power generation while annoying the Russians, their MOX fuel negotiating partner. Now DOE talks glibly about burying this weapons grade nuclear waste in deep boreholes; but, this involves an unproven technology and will not satisfy Russian demands that this dangerous material be rendered entirely unavailable for future use in nuclear weapons.

2&3. In spite of the Blue Ribbon Commission's advice, the notion that nuclear waste ought not be put into a permanent repository, even on federal lands, without prior expressions of deep satisfaction from neighboring populations (a "consent-based approach"), seems to me to be at least a recipe for more delay. Also, the fact that DOE features the tribes so prominently, in this context, is suspicious. After all, tribal lands held in trust by the U. S. government amount to only 2.5% of the total U. S. land area, or just 9% of federal land holdings. Might it be that DOE yearns to dump its nuclear waste largely onto tribal lands?Alternately, is DOE again just trying to make friends?

 Most recently ,DOE has tried to avoid its nuclear waste policy impasse by entering into an agreement with Waste Control Specialists to store defense nuclear waste, on an interim basis, although in insufficiently large quantities, on privately owned land (but, in Texas.)

 Finally, in the person of Director E. Moniz, DOE talks charmingly about how it intends to move forward on several fronts, gaining control of the presently chaotic world of nuclear waste, perhaps partly by means of its superior powers of analysis combined with its poignant hopes for a better future.

Why am I not much impressed?