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Thought the Debate Over Nuclear Waste Was Buried? Not Anymore

One of the biggest impediments to generating more nuclear power is where to store the spent fuel, or the radioactive waste. But a private company wants to operate such a storage facility in West Texas and thinks it will get approval to do so and begin operations as early as 2021.

Waste Control Specialists has submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to build and operate an interim storage unit, along with Areva and NAC International. What makes this request so unusual is that the primary efforts have centered on a transition from onsite storage where the power is actually generated to just one central location in Nevada at Yucca Mountain. A central storage site now seems out-of-reach given the political opposition and the geological concerns.

The primary operations performed at the West Texas site would be transferring the sealed canisters of used fuel from a transportation cask into an engineered interim fuel storage system where it will be monitored until its — ultimate — departure to an offsite permanent disposal location. That could be a while.

“I am confident that we will have a final license in approximately three years. This is a critical first step and I hope that legislative and DOE contractual matters can also be resolved in that period,” said Waste Control Specialists Chief Executive Rod Baltzer, in a statement.

His company is one of the only private companies that is able license, treat and store most types of radioactive waste. The site would be in West Texas, which has the precise arid climate required for such disposal, says Balzer. He is proposing a 40-year plan that would store 40,000 metic tons.

Consolidated interim storage provides benefits that include being able to keep onsite operations in use for longer periods and thereby avoid shutdowns at some facilities, the chief executive says. He adds the West Texas operations will show that transporting radioactive materials can be safely done.

The American people have contributed $31 billion since 1987 to studying the feasibility of Yucca Mountain. But the folks there don’t want 70,000 plus tons of nuclear waste in their backyard. Beside the political obstacles, engineers have expressed concerns that some of the spent nuclear material could eventually escape from its encasements and cause damage to ground water supplies in the area.

However, better options exist for permanent storage, says Jim Conca, director of the Center for Laboratory Sciences for RJLee Group in Pasco, Wash. Consider: the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Program(WIPP), a massive salt formation in southeastern New Mexico that has been accepting waste from nuclear weapons for 14 years. But it is not permitted to take in low-level spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors.

As Conca explains, WIPP is 16 square miles of a 10,000-square mile, 2,000-foot thick salt layer. Those materials that are placed there are engulfed by the natural geology — the tightest rock on earth. The main obstacle, he adds, is the administrative changes necessary to allow the transport and disposal of spent fuel from the current interim sites to WIPP. Political resistance would also arise.

But massive salt formations are better repositories than the hard rock at Yucca Mountain, he insists, noting that rocks can fracture whereas salt does not. The best salt formations are in New Mexico and Texas.

If nothing else, this latest application by Waste Control Specialists will enliven the debate over the role of nuclear energy in power generation markets, not to mention the whole nuclear waste disposal conversation. Politically, a centralized storage site seems like an awfully high hurdle to cross. But an interim storage site such as the one in West Texas — one that could provide some relief to current onsite onsite storage facilities — has merits that deserve further debate.

Ken Silverstein is editor-in-chief of Business Sector Media, publisher of Environmental Leader and Energy Manager Today.

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9 thoughts on “Thought the Debate Over Nuclear Waste Was Buried? Not Anymore

  1. I see some errors in the article; 1) The American people have not contributed directly to the Nuclear Waste Fund, it is though a surcharge on energy generation, and was suspended in 2014. In addition, I believe the total amount was more like $30 billion, not million. 2) The waste from nuclear reactors is high-level waste, not low-level. WIPP is permitted to accept low-level and transuranic wastes from defense and energy research operations of DOE. It was never intended for HLW. In addition, in 2014 it was at over 80% of capacity for the existing units. There is simply not capacity at WIPP for high-level waste, especially considering the backlog of HLW stored at reactors. WIPP has also had several operational problems in its’ recent history.

    You also could have mentioned that the DOE evaluated a site in bedded salt in the Texas panhandle (among others previous to that), but that project was killed by congressional action in 1987.
    Also, though I realize it is a quote, salt does fracture, it just has the unique ability to “heal” itself.

  2. I changed the million to billion. Thanks for the head’s up on that one. I’ll let the other comments stand as critiques of the story. Ken

  3. “Beside the political obstacles, engineers have expressed concerns that some of the spent nuclear material could eventually escape from its encasements and cause damage to ground water supplies in the area.” I’m very interested in who those engineers are. Canada is also looking for a site for our HLNW. My hometown is being investigated as a possible location. It seems here, all the nuclear experts (anyone with a degree), works for the industry…so we don’t hear from them. And any other opposing voice has their character quickly attacked by the nuclear trolls. There are NO opposing voiced being permitted to speak publicly on their plan to bury high level nuclear waste. As a Canadian, I have never been told there are actual engineers out there who have confirmed what we know to be true. We are being told this is 100% safe..some think it’s RISK FREE!! Dr Frank Greening is a retired Scientist and he wrote a letter that exposed some truths…but the public has not heard from him since. Anyway, do you have links to who these engineers are and what they have said about the canisters leaking?

  4. https://sanonofresafety.org
    The link above has some very important information regarding the waste canisters to be used for storing and transporting spent fuel. Before everyone gets so excited about this Consolidaed Interim Waste Storage proposal, please consider them actual risks involved.
    Transporting nuclear waste in thin Holtec bolted lid canisters can never be safe. It doesn’t matter how good your drivers might be. There are still other idiots on the road. One pierced or dropped canister will release an 1850 millisievert dose to the population living within one mile. That is a figure the NRC reported. An 1850millisievert dose is enough to kill people!
    Additionally, the statement about consolidated interim storage being beneficial by making it so older nuclear reactors can run longer is just wrong. There is nothing beneficial about relicensing aging,leaky, cancer spreading nuclear plants past their expiration dates. The only thing to be gained from such a move would be cancer and genetic instability

  5. Bev….you should look into the history and status re the Yucca project in Nevada. We formed a team of lawyers and experts who oppose the storage of waste there. The USNRC has admitted into the licensing proceeding well over 200 criticisms from our team; and yes, we had to engage many experts from overseas because the proponents of the project had taken most experts off the market.

  6. The “thin” canisters you mention that contain the spent fuel would be first removed from the thick reinforced concrete storage module at the nuclear plant and then placed into robust shipping casks prior to and during transport to the waste storage facility. These shipping casks undergo extensive testing to ensure that accidents will not cause damage to the fuel canister inside. Check out the videos from Sandia National Labs. Also please describe the accident scenario that would cause a release resulting in a dose of 1850 mSv (185 rem in US units) to the population living within one mile, which is not a fatal dose. So the actual risks involved in spent fuel transport are known and are controlled to protect workers and the public. Based on your last sentence I get the impression that you let your opposition to nuclear get in the way of the facts about spent fuel transportation.

  7. In response to multiple comments:

    Yes, WIPP is not intended/licensed for high-level waste or spent fuel, but that does not mean that salt domes are not a suitable place to bury such wastes. Other salt dome locations, or even WIPP itself could be licensed for such wastes. As for “not having enough space”, such capacity limits are purely arbitrary. The salt formations have more than enough room to accommodate all of our high level wastes. WIPP could be expanded.

    As for experts who think that Yucca will leak and result in unacceptable releases, the polite thing to say would be that they are a small minority view (one that is probable politically motivated). The fact is that NRC has ruled that Yucca will meet all of the impeccable technical requirements (the most rigorous requirements applied to any waste stream ever). And NRC is cautious and conservative to the point of being anal. Almost all of mankind’s other waste streams will pose a far greater hazard over the very long term.

    I find the quoted public doses from a “dropped or punctured” canister, or that a hairline crack would release millions of curies to be impossible to believe. And I worked in the waste storage and transport industry. The fact is that a puncture or small crack would only release the fission gases (and perhaps a small amount of “volatiles”). The release rate would be slow, and the dispersion (dilution rate) in the atmosphere would be large, resulting in negligible concentrations and negligible public doses. The activity of the fission gases within a canister are nowhere near millions of curies.

    CLosing nuclear plants, even older ones, amount of an environmental crime, as the public health and environmental impacts of the fossil generation that would replace them are orders of magnitude larger, especially when global warming is concerned. To make it even more simple, nuclear plants do NOT “spread cancer”, fossil plants DO “spread cancer”, and a host of other ailments.

  8. Laurel, the information on the SOS site about the canisters is blatantly miss leading. True the canisters are just like they are pictured, but the canisters are not the containment devices, they are merely the supports for the fuel assemblies. You really should look at the Holtec site to get the correct information.

  9. Jim Hopf is correct, the canisters were tested and built to withstand tremendous forces.

    The people in Nevada (ie Harry Reid) were content to take billions of dollars to build the waste repository, but when the schedule called for finally shipping canisters, then “there was a problem.” Purely, NIMBY, the taxpayers get screwed again.

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