Monday, February 10, 2014

NYT: Nuclear Waste Solution Seen in Desert Salt Beds

One of the great problems of nuclear power has always been what to do with the radioactive waste. Most of it presently is stored at the reactor sites, and most of the spent rods are kept in specially designed pools, called wet storage. 
The rest of the waste, also usually kept on site, is in dry storage. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, dry storage began in 1986: "In this method, spent fuel is surrounded by inert gas inside a container called a cask. The casks can be made of metal or concrete, and some can be used for both storage and transportation. They are either placed horizontally or stand vertically on a concrete pad." 
Finally, however, The New York Times is reporting that New Mexico salt mines are providing a simple, feasible and effective solution:
Half a mile beneath the desert surface, in thick salt beds left behind by seas that dried up hundreds of millions of years ago, the Department of Energy is carving out rooms as long as football fields and cramming them floor to ceiling with barrels and boxes of nuclear waste. 
The salt beds, which have the consistency of crumbly rock so far down in the earth, are what the federal government sees as a natural sealant for the radioactive material left over from making nuclear weapons. 
The process is deceptively simple: Plutonium waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and a variety of defense projects is packed into holes bored into the walls of rooms carved from salt. At a rate of six inches a year, the salt closes in on the waste and encapsulates it for what engineers say will be millions of years.

For many years the hope had been to bury it in Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But that never happened, largely because Nevadans opposed it, and they had strong political leadership from Sen. Harry Reid to make sure it was never done.
(The salt beds of the New Mexico desert are) of particular interest since the demise of the plan for Yucca Mountain, a volcanic ridge 100 miles from Las Vegas chosen by Congress for the storage of nuclear waste from power reactors and weapons, but adamantly opposed by the state of Nevada. 
The material buried at the plant, which began accepting waste in 1999, is limited by law to plutonium waste from making weapons, which is exceptionally long-lived but not highly radioactive. The waste from spent nuclear fuel, which is far more radioactive in its first few centuries, is not permitted. But experts say that proper testing and analysis might show that the salt beds at (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) are a good home for the radioactive waste that was once meant for Yucca.

Unlike with the situation in Nevada, the nearest neighbors in New Mexico support using he salt mines to bury the spent nuclear material.
In the nearby community, business and political leaders are agitating for expansion. John A. Heaton, a Democratic former state representative and the head of the Nuclear Opportunities Task Force, a local business group, argued that the geology was suitable. “The Permian basin is 250 million years old,” he said. “It’s been here a long, long time.” His group has bought a patch of desert and is now exploring whether the land could be used for interim storage of highly radioactive waste.
However, some opposition has arise at the state level, and the governor, Susana Martinez (R), has not yet decided which way she stands.