Thought the Debate Over Nuclear Waste Was Buried? Not Anymore

by | May 3, 2016

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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