The Department of Energy has long been burying plutonium waste beneath the surface of New Mexico's desert. The DOE stashes it inside carved-out salt beds, which act as a sealant. Plutonium, which has an extremely long half-life, is not that radioactive. But the DOE is eyeing an underground plant in Southeastern N.M. as a potential storage facility for much more radioactive nuclear waste.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) located 25 miles east of Carlsbad, is considered a safe way to dispose of plutonium waste. The New York Times explains that the salt slowly -- at a rate of roughly six inches per year -- seals the containers of waste into the ground. Last week a salt-bearing truck caught fire in the mine, but officials said no harm was done and that all radioactive material was untouched. One engineer told the New York Times that the waste will be safely sealed away for an "eternity."
Legally the plant is only permitted to store plutonium waste, but officials are considering tweaking WIPP's regulations to allow it to store more potent waste, years after a plan to store more harmful nuclear waste products in Nevada's Yucca Mountain was quashed. The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, conceived in 1987, was never realized thanks to opposition from Nevada residents and leaders, who convinced the federal government to shut it down in 2009. The nuclear storage vacuum has been highly problematic for the U.S. nuclear program, as Slate explains:
Since America's commercial reactors started opening in the 1960s and ’70s, nuclear waste has been piling up. At first, it was stored in spent fuel pools—swimming pools you'd never, ever want to swim in. That was fine for a time, but by the 1980s, the pools started to get crowded. So the utilities began putting old fuel rods in something they call dry cask storage, and I'll call nuclear dumpsters. They're big, they're white, and they're literally kept out back like the rest of the trash.
Now, officials hope to replace the Yucca plant with the WIPP. Per the Times:
Experts say that proper testing and analysis might show that the salt beds at WIPP are a good home for the radioactive waste that was once meant for Yucca. Some people despair of finding a place for what officials call a high-level nuclear “repository” — they shy away from “dump” — but Allison M. Macfarlane, a geologist who is chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and who served on a presidential study commission established after the Yucca plan was canceled, said WIPP proves it can be done. “The main lesson from WIPP is that we have already developed a geologic repository for nuclear waste in this country, so we can in the future,” she said. The key, she said, is a site that is acceptable to both scientists and the local community.
If the government is looking for a nuclear-friendly audience, they may have found one in New Mexico. According to the Times, leaders are pushing for the program to expand. The Head of the Nuclear Opportunities Task Force, John A. Heaton, argues that a nuclear storage plant would help the regional economy, saying "nobody comes in and helps rural areas. You have to live by your wits." And Rev. David Wilson Rogers of Carlsbad's First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) said "this facility has the opportunity to give a blessing tot he world by having a safe repository."
Some, however, fear that the growing prevalence of fracking in the region could mean that the waste materials could leak during drilling, and would end up being buried for far less time than planned. The Southwest Research and Information Center's safety director, Don Hancock, told the Times that he has been opposing the WIPP since the 1970s, adding, "If WIPP really is a pilot plant, as its name says, we should have WIPP do what it’s supposed to do, and operate safely for 25 or 30 years, and then safely decommission it to demonstrate to us and the world that in fact geologic disposal does work.”