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?  


  1. To answer your question - If I were a political leader in NM, I'd work to solve LANL's waste problem, using WIPP as an example.

    Carlsbad is a great example of how waste storage can work when it's done correctly. Sometimes people just have trouble transferring lessons learned.

    1. I agree with you Savannah, LANLs waste should be a top priority for the state. So far as I know, the DOE is on track to have all the above ground TRU waste at LANL off site by 2014, though it is hard to say what effect the United States' current budget crunch will have on those operations.

      As to your comment about how sometimes we have trouble transferring lessons from one place to another, what lessons do you think the United States should take away from WIPP for when it gets back to dealing with waste from nuclear power plants?

  2. That is a tough question Abe. NM has a lot of culture and history in their population so everyone has a differing opinion as to what should be done. (This forever makes me grateful I am not a politician.) But considering LANL is a large contributor to the waste problems of the state, that should be the top priority.

    1. Agreed, LANL should be a top priority. The question I would ask you then is what happens after LANL? Carlsbad politicians are keen on pursuing the nuclear waste economy option as a long-term alternative to potash mining which simply does not operate on the timescales as nuclear waste.

  3. Did the end of funding for the Yucca Mountain facility affect the Carlsbad facility in any way?

    1. Not to my knowledge. WIPP's "government waste only" mission has in many ways left it isolated from the politics that dictate nuclear energy waste policy.