Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The TRUth is Out There


What do Hot Air Balloons, Walt White, and Nuclear Waste have in common?
(a) Bryan Cranston
(b) The lineup on AMC
(c) New Mexico
(d) Caltech

If you answered New Mexico, you got it!
(Honestly, you could make an argument for any of them)

The normal story on nuclear waste is that the United States does not have a clear solution. That’s sort of true. It depends on how you frame it. For example, when you ask nuclear scientists and engineers if we have a solution to handle our nuclear waste, they will pretty much say yes, nuclear waste reprocessing and storage methods have existed for decades and other “smarter” countries (such as France) do it all the time.

However, when you ask them whether we have a working nuclear waste storage facility in the United States, they almost always dive into an explanation of how there are different types of nuclear (or "radioactive" if they are feeling fancy) waste.

Which is true.

But that still doesn't answer your question.

When (if at all) we think about nuclear waste, the first thing that comes to mind (after Futurama and The Simpsons) is Yucca Mountain. Yucca Mountain, the nuclear waste storage site in the Nevada desert mandated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982's amendment (the "screw Nevada bill") is well known. Its sister facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico, is not.

Department of Energy video on WIPP (ugh, government films)

The purpose of WIPP is to store transuranic (or TRU) wastes collected from various government sites where different radioactive materials (such as those used to make a nuclear weapon) were processed. TRU waste looks pretty much like any other waste you would find at a large industrial site (gloves, tools, contaminated soil, etc.), except TRU waste is covered in a radioactive material such as plutonium. The waste is encased various size containers based on goverment regulations and buried over 2000 feet below the surface of the earth.

Workers Dispose of TRU Waste Underground

WIPP has more or less run quietly for the majority of its 13-year life. Some of this has to do with the fact that a lot of the waste at WIPP is from sites where nuclear weapons were produced – commonly known as The Nuclear Weapons Complex. A bigger reason though, is that the Carlsbad community is by in large supportive of WIPP's existence.

Carlsbad Locals in Support of WIPP
Carlsbad politicians are so happy with what WIPP has done for the community that they are currently angling to land more jobs in the nuclear waste disposal business. Given the fact that WIPP guarantees around 200 well-paying jobs for the community into the 2030s, it’s easy to see why. Carlsbad has a population of 26,000 and a median income of around $44,000, about $10,000 less than the national average. These politicians and other nuclear waste supporters in the community see nuclear waste disposal as something already familiar that could potentially bring hundreds of high paying technical jobs to their remote community.

Carlsbad in the Southeast

Not everyone in New Mexico is keen on filling up the state with nuclear waste though, especially since the state has enough of its own still waiting disposal at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, a New Mexican non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Santa Fe, NM, argues that expanding the scope of what WIPP does could mean that New Mexicans will be saddled with disposing other states’ waste rather than taking care of their own. More waste would also mean more trucks carrying it on the major highways in New Mexico.

WIPP Waste Transportation Routes

New Mexicans, like other westerners have a long legacy of nuclear technology all their own. The advantages of nuclear waste storage for the state is balanced by the social and ecological consequences of relying on an industry that has already left the state with a complex legacy. At the end of the day, it will be up to New Mexicans to decide the direction they want to take and how to get there.
If you were a leader in Carlsbad’s community, how would you handle this complex situation?  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Digging in the Dirt

Uranium ore extraction has a long history in the American West, dating back to 1871 when very small amounts of uranium from gold and silver mines in Central City, Colorado found their way onto the European market. The discovery of radiation by Henri Becquerel in 1896 and the element radium by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898 suddenly turned this element for dyes into the source of a cancer treating miracle!

Originally, the work of Becquerel used pitchblende, a blackish colored ore containing uranium oxide or UO2. Pitchblende is rich in uranium, but much harder to find than other uranium bearing ores. As fate would have it, a French chemist by the name of Charles Poulot, who, unable to use a sample of ore from the mines of western Colorado for his copper chemistry experiments, gave it to his professor Charles Friedel. Friedel promptly determined it was an as yet unknown uranium and vanadium bearing ore. That ore is what we today know as carnotite. 

The interesting thing about the name carnotite is no one really knows who gave it that name. Some authors claim it was Marie Curie herself, who on a trip to Colorado in 1899 named the ore after the French Inspector General of Mines, A. Carnot. Others say that it was in fact Charles Friedel, who after determining the ore was unnamed christened it carnotite after the same man. There is even a third story, where Marie Curie never visits Colorado, but names the ore carnotite after Monsieur Carnot anyways. Personally, I believe the third story is correct. In a 1921 article in the New York Times entitled "The Story of Radium," the writer never mentions that Curie visited Colorado during her trips to the United States.

Either way, carnotite was the name that stuck, and from 1898 until 1922 the radium business grew prosperous. In 1922, the Belgians discovered a large source of pitchblende in Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and undercut their competition by selling radium at $70,000 (rather than upwards of $100,000) a gram. One of the radium mines in western Colorado that was shut down during this period was the Joe Junior Camp in western Montrose County. This site would sit dormant until 1936 when a subsidiary of Union Carbide, United States Vanadium (USV) would take over the town and rename it Uravan (uranium-vanadium). Uravan would in the ensuing decades become one of the centers of uranium mining and milling in the American West.

The Nuclear Complex(ities)

The complicated thing about discussing the New Nuclear West is there is no one-stop shop for information. In response to this quandary, I have decided to look through various newspapers from communities in the Interior West states for any local news that is nuclear related.

Looking through the Albuquerque Journal yesterday, I found an interesting article on a part of the New Nuclear West that hits home for myself and other nuclear engineering graduate students:

 According to the author, John Fleck, a preliminary analysis by the primary budget agency in the federal government, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) (not to be confused with OMG, which is the feeling most federal agencies get when OMB tells them how much they can actually spend) states that if Congress and the Obama administration cannot come to some sort of budget agreement by January 2, New Mexico's two national labs (Sandia and Los Alamos (LANL)) and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, NM will see 9.4% cuts in their respective budgets. According to research conducted by the head of the University of New Mexico's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, Lee Reynis, this "sequestration" "could cost some 20,000 New Mexicans their jobs." All kidding aside about how ridiculous the name "sequestration" is, the threat of budget cuts has been looming over scientists and science policy advocates in Washington, D.C. for months. Speculation has run rampant about what will really happen, and whether or not both defense and non-defense spending will be cut. As a graduate student in nuclear engineering, I am really worried about the prospect of the sequestration. Most graduate students in nuclear engineering rely on federal research grants to pay for their Master's and Doctorate. On a more regional scale, I also worry about what effects these cuts will have on nuclear-dependent communities in the Interior West. Of the nuclear technology focused national labs in the United States today, three labs (Sandia, LANL, and Idaho National Lab (INL)) are in the Interior West.

Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratories 
If cuts to Sandia and LANL could cost New Mexico 20,000 jobs, what will similar cuts do up in Idaho? Unlike Sandia and LANL, which are both within 2 hours of Albuquerque, INL is outside of the small city of Idaho Falls, population 56,000. Similar cuts to INL could be devastating for eastern Idaho, given that Idaho Falls is the largest city in eastern Idaho and is almost 5 hours from the state's largest city, Boise. Beyond Idaho, cuts to INL's budget could impact other communities as well. For example, in my lowly graduate student office at the Colorado School of Mines, six of the twelve graduate students I share that space with have either worked, are working, or will work for one of the three national labs in the Interior West.

Independence and self sufficiency are hallmark traits of westerners, but that idealism becomes problematic when you start to include the amount of money nuclear technology related activities bring to the Interior West. A more transparent understanding of the connections between our large nuclear activities and the greater American West would benefit all westerners, whether they deal with nuclear technology or not. At the end of the day, being in the west is a unique experience, and westerners share the benefits and burdens of their decisions as a community.

(Updated on 9/20/12 at 12:50pm: Link to DOE Office of Science Website added to caption)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The "Real" Department of Energy

General Land Office 200th Anniversary Commemoration Conference
Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a conference on public lands management hosted by the University of Colorado Boulder's Center for the American West and the Public Lands Foundation. The purpose of the conference was to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the General Land Office (GLO), which oversaw westward expansion throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. The GLO lived on until 1946 when it was merged with the much younger U.S. Grazing Service to form the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). During this conference I had the opportunity to meet with a multitude of current and former land managers including former directors of the BLM, chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service, and the current Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar. I found it very interesting that certain members of the U.S. Department of the Interior, namely Secretary of the Interior Salazar and former BLM Director Bob Abbey jokingly remarked that the Department of the Interior was in addition to it's land management duties the "Real" department of energy. While the comment was tongue-in-cheek on the part of both Secretary Salazar and Director Abbey, it reflects how important America's public lands are for energy production. The BLM for instance manages 256 million acres (about 2 1/2 Californias) of land and around 700 million acres (about 30% of the total area of the United States) of subsurface mineral rights, most of that in Alaska and west of the Great Plains.

Federal Lands and Indian Reservations
Of all the publicly owned lands, BLM land is the most important to energy because of the multiple use mandate established by the Federal Lands Management Policy Act (FLMPA) in 1976. Multiple use means that the BLM has to balance all of the various scientific, historical, ecological, archaeological, and human uses of the land. In Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico, multiple use includes uranium mining. Along a stretch of the Colorado-Utah border, a large amount of BLM land sits on top of the Uravan Mineral Belt, a source of uranium rich Carnotite ore. The BLM's Uncompahgre Field Office, which manages part of the Uravan Mineral Belt, records 25 uranium exploration projects either on or adjacent to BLM land. Given how many different projects are going on in this area of the American West alone, it is interesting to note that none of the former public land managers participating in panels at this conference brought up the issue of uranium on public lands. While issues over uranium mining may not be as high profile as oil & gas issues, they are certainly not dead either. Just ask the people who live on Colorado's western slope.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The New Nuclear West - A Prelude

Nuclear technology and the American West have a rather...complex relationship. For most students of science and engineering (myself included) the only things ever mentioned in class about nuclear technology in the American West are nuclear bombs and nuclear waste. While each of these topics is very interesting and most certainly deserves further discussion, they only represent part of the full range of nuclear "experiences" for westerners. The Nuclear West was a phrase coined by Raye Ringholz in her classic history, Uranium Frenzy, to describe the unique relationship westerners have with nuclear technology. The New Nuclear West is an attempt by a young, somewhat eclectic, and occasionally provocative graduate student (that would be me) to continue the story of the many ways in which westerners experience nuclear technology.

Before I ride off into the proverbial sunset, I want to say a few things about myself and this blog. First off, I am a student of Nuclear Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines and a member of the American Nuclear Society. That being said, The New Nuclear West is a reflection of my personal beliefs and should not be viewed as the opinions of either the Colorado School of Mines or ANS. Secondly, this is a project for my class in Advanced Science Communication and is a work in progress. My hope is that by December The New Nuclear West will descend from the mountain of inconsistency to the mutual benefit of all parties involved. Finally, I sincerely hope that the issues I bring to light will motivate you to engage with me and provide your insights. We humans frame our material world with language, and an open, two-way dialogue is the best way for our society to better understand the complex relationship between nuclear technology and the American West.