If the U.S. government is really intent on adopting a consent-based approach to building public acceptance for a nuclear waste repository, New Mexico is the place to begin.
Carlsbad, a city of 25,000 in southeastern New Mexico, wants to host a deep-geologic repository to hold high-level waste from nuclear power plants and the defense program. And the city is really serious about it. That waste which includes large amounts of high-level waste stored at the Idaho National Laboratory and other government nuclear installations around the country was tagged for shipping to an underground facility at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert until the Obama administration pulled the plug on the project two years ago.
Nevadans understandably resent the fact that the Yucca Mountain project was forced on them without consultation or popular approval. People in other states were understandably angry when Nevadas powerful Sen. Harry Reid persuaded Obama to terminate the project. Meanwhile, $12 billion and 30 years have already been spent on site development and mine engineering.
Carlsbad is a different story altogether. The city, best known for its magnificent caverns, already hosts the worlds only operating deep-geologic repository for radioactive transuranic waste from nuclear weapons production. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, known as WIPP, is 26 miles from Carlsbad. Many people in Carlsbad, including the citys longtime mayor and business leaders, are enthusiastic supporters of WIPP. Surprising?
Back in the 1970s, when the idea for WIPP was first proposed, many people in New Mexico were concerned about its safety. They questioned whether building a repository the length of several football fields in a salt bed a half-mile beneath the desert floor would be wise. They worried about all the truck traffic that would come with the shipment of waste from distant sites. This, in turn, led to creation of an independent watchdog group known as the New Mexico Environment Evaluation Group, which examined for accuracy every study, report and statement the Government issued on WIPP. The group raised questions about WIPP with the Department of Energy and got answers.
Since WIPP opened in 1999, there have been more than 10,000 waste shipments by truck and railroad from government nuclear laboratories and other facilities some more than 1,000 miles away. The shipments have been completed without incident, using new highways that circumvent Carlsbad and other New Mexico cities.
So far, some 200,000 tons of waste primarily machinery and tools containing small amounts of plutonium and other long-lived nuclear materials have been placed in WIPPs chambers. The shipments are expected to continue for another 25 to 35 years, at which time the repository will be covered with soil and concrete. Salt, which moves like putty, is expected to fill any open spaces in the repository and cracks or fissures in the geologic formations surrounding the repository, effectively sealing the repository.
As for Carlsbad, it now has the second lowest unemployment rate in New Mexico, at 3 percent. Some 1,300 permanent jobs have been created by WIPP, along with an equal number of support jobs. WIPP has an annual budget of $215 million, and most of it stays in Carlsbad. Over the past decade, New Mexico has received $300 million in federal highway funds, including $100 million for highways in the Carlsbad area.
Carlsbads favorable experience with WIPP is a clear message for the government to take a bottom-up, consensus-based approach to siting a repository for high-level waste. Such an approach was recommended by President Obamas Blue Ribbon Commission on Nuclear Waste. Resolving the waste disposal standoff would surely be good for Idaho and would spur the construction of new nuclear plants around the country, thereby providing a reliable and affordable supply of clean energy to meet growing demand in the years ahead.
Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar is an associate professor of nuclear engineering at Idaho State University.