New Mexico Suggested for Reactor Waste

Saturday, April 12, 2008
By John Fleck - Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer

Southeastern New Mexico, already home to the nation's first deep underground nuclear waste disposal site, might also be a good site for radioactive nuclear reactor waste, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., suggested at a congressional hearing this week.

Domenici's comments come amid increasing concern by the U.S. nuclear industry about the government's failure to find a way to dispose of the highly radioactive waste left behind by nuclear power plants.

Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site proposed as the permanent tomb for the waste, is years behind schedule and will not be ready to accept waste until 2017 at the earliest.

Meanwhile, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a mine dug into deep salt beds in the desert near Carlsbad, has been open for nine years, accepting radioactive waste from nuclear weapons manufacturing.

At an April 9 appropriations hearing, Domenici asked Ward Sproat, head of the Yucca Mountain project, whether something like WIPP might work as an alternative to Yucca Mountain.

"You could, if you wanted to, without any question, you could put it in the salt of Carlsbad, most of it?" Domenici asked.

"If the law was changed to allow that, yes," Sproat responded.

Domenici quickly added that he was not talking specifically about sending reactor waste to WIPP, but rather about the more general possibility of using deep salt beds as an alternative to Yucca Mountain for reactor waste.

Under current law, nuclear power plant waste cannot be legally disposed of at WIPP, which is designed primarily for waste with lower levels of radiation.

In the hearing and in an interview Friday, Domenici said reprocessing used reactor fuel is a key step needed to sidestep the problems Yucca Mountain faces.

Many in the nuclear industry favor reprocessing because it can remove usable nuclear material from the spent fuel, recycling it for use in nuclear reactors again while also reducing the amount of waste.

Opponents of reprocessing point out that past efforts in the United States have been expensive and caused serious environmental contamination.

"Reprocessing is a $200 billion-plus boondoggle that doesn't work," said Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety project at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque.

Hancock said any effort to bring used nuclear power plant fuel to New Mexico, either for reprocessing or as part of a permanent disposal effort, is likely to run into stiff opposition.

Domenici said in a telephone interview Friday that he will introduce legislation later this year in an attempt to break the logjam over nuclear waste.

One idea being quietly pursued by the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, is the creation of one or a number of interim nuclear waste storage sites around the country to take power plant waste until Yucca Mountain or some alternative disposal option is ready.

There have been preliminary discussions about New Mexico playing host to such a site, said John Heaton, a Democratic state representative from Carlsbad and active nuclear power supporter.

Domenici said he supports the idea of interim storage sites.

"I would look with favor on that idea," he said in the interview.

One of the keys to the success of such an initiative, according to Domenici, would be support of the area surrounding the waste site.

Local and regional political support is often mentioned as a key reason WIPP is open while Yucca Mountain remains mired in controversy.

State officials in Nevada adamantly oppose Yucca Mountain. WIPP has strong support from the Carlsbad community and sometimes grudging support from New Mexico state government and the state's political leadership.

Hancock noted that the state's support for WIPP was contingent on strict rules prohibiting civilian power plant waste from coming to New Mexico, suggesting that support for WIPP is not likely to translate into support for the storage or disposal of power plant waste here.