Wednesday, June 16, 2010

WIPP's Future Unsure

As the period for public comment winds down on NMED's proposed renewal Permit for the WIPP site (the last day of the comment period is June 28, 2010), it may be of interest to recall that the United States Government is now also contemplating a future expansion of both WIPP's size and WIPP's mandate. The following material is related to this potentially unsettling (for citizens of New Mexico) topic:

Excerpted from, "Advice for the Blue Ribbon Commission"
By Robert Alvarez | The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists | 24 March 2010

"President Barack Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future will have its first meeting this week. The commission, formed after Obama cancelled the Yucca Mountain spent nuclear fuel repository in January, is tasked with rebooting the country's five-decade-plus effort to manage its high-level radioactive waste."

"The 15-member commission includes representatives from industry, government, and academia and is co-chaired by former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and former Indiana Democratic Cong. Lee Hamilton. It's scheduled to provide interim recommendations in 18 months and a final report within the next 24 months. It will review the government's management of the nuclear fuel cycle and consider all alternatives for the storage, processing, and disposal of used nuclear fuel, high-level waste, and materials derived from nuclear activities."

[One such problematic issue is that of the disposition of high-level military waste.] "Since World War II, the production of plutonium and other nuclear material has generated about 100 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste that is stored in 237 gigantic underground tanks in South Carolina, Washington, Idaho, and New York. In 1985 the government mandated that such wastes be commingled and stored with civilian spent fuel at Yucca Mountain. With Yucca closed, community and political leaders near Washington's Hanford and South Carolina's Savannah River nuclear weapon sites are now suing to reopen Yucca and force the government to take the material. There is growing interest in placing the waste in the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), a geologic disposal site in a salt formation near Carlsbad, New Mexico that opened in 1998 for plutonium-contaminated military waste. Predictably, New Mexico's elected officials are not supportive of the idea."

"Despite local political opposition, there may be merit to exploring the potential for defense high-level waste disposal at WIPP. Unlike commercial spent fuel, more than 98 percent of the long-lived radioactive material in defense wastes, such as plutonium, has been removed. It's also roughly 10 times less radioactive and thus produces less decay heat than commercial reactor spent fuel--an important factor because decay heat can corrode waste containers and impact the geological stability of the site. That said, more research is necessary to determine if placing wastes in WIPP is a viable option."

Opinion Published in Albuquerque Journal | April 08, 2010

"WIPP Not a 'Storage' Place"
By Ron Curry, Cabinet Secretary, New Mexico Environment Department

"In response to the editorial in your paper on March 30, 'Time Right To Look at WIPP for Greater Uses,' we assert that New Mexico, more than any other state, has done its part in disposing of our nation's nuclear waste. But, changing the mission at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad by allowing high level nuclear waste at the site runs contrary to the federal government's promise to New Mexicans more than a decade ago. That promise was that the facility should dispose only of transuranic waste created by production of nuclear weapons. But, permanent disposal of the nation's nuclear waste is a national issue and the responsibility for such disposal should not be placed solely on our state."

"The editorial mentions that a federal Blue Ribbon Commission is tasked with recommending to the Department of Energy solutions for nuclear waste disposal. This commission's purpose, stated in its charter, is not to recommend locations for disposal. Although former Sen. Domenici agrees with that and states he is not advocating for any location, it is clear where he stands on this issue when he offers that "field hearings" be held at WIPP. If field hearings are conducted at WIPP, shouldn't they also be held at locations where defense-related nuclear waste was created — such as Hanford in Washington and Savannah River in South Carolina — and at commercial nuclear power plants?"

"WIPP is not a ‘storage’ site. WIPP is in fact a disposal site, and disposal is forever. However, some of the high-level waste under consideration by the commission might be more amenable to a non-permanent ‘storage’ option. For example, the solution for spent nuclear fuel must include the ability to retrieve and potentially reprocess that source, if that is the direction the United States pursues. Under that scenario, dry-cask storage at sites where waste is created may be a reasonable alternative to ‘storage’ in a repository. Options for high level waste, on the other hand, must consider permanent disposal with no intent of retrieval."

"The editorial claims that 'it's time for scientific research to have the upper hand over political considerations.' We believe science and the will of the people must be considered equally. Further, we don't agree that nuclear power necessarily weans us from foreign energy interests. The main nuclear power consortium that builds most plants worldwide is a French state-supported company with a long history of cost and schedule overruns."

No comments: