Deep Geologic Nuclear Waste Disposal- No New Taxes

Publication Information:

Conca, J. and J. Wright, “Deep Geologic Nuclear Waste Disposal – No New Taxes”, BRC, 2011.

Year: 2011

Topics: Energy & Utilities, Government, Nuclear Energy

To some, the perceived inability of the United States to dispose of high-level nuclear waste justifies a moratorium on expansion of nuclear power in this country. Instead, it is more an example of how science yields to social pressure, even on a subject as technical as nuclear waste. Most of the problems, however, stem from confusion on the part of the public and their elected officials, not from a lack of scientific knowledge. We know where to put nuclear waste,how to put it there, how much it will cost, and how well it will work. And it’s all about the geology. Unknown to most, the United States has a successful operating deep permanent geologic nuclear repository for high and low activity waste, called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Its success results from several factors, including an optimal geologic and physiographic setting, a strong scientific basis, early regional community support, frequent interactions among stakeholders at all stages of the process, long-term commitment from the upper management of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) over several administrations,strong New Mexico State involvement and oversight, and constant environmental monitoring from before nuclear waste was first emplaced in the WIPP underground (in 1999) to the present.

WIPP is located in the massive bedded salts of the Salado Formation, whose geological, physical, chemical, redox, thermal, and creep-closure propertiesmake it an ideal formation for long-term disposal, long-term in this case being greater than 200 million years. These properties also mean minimal engineering requirements as the rock does most of the work of isolating the waste. WIPP has been operating for twelve years, and as of this writing, has disposed of over 80,000 m3 of nuclear weapons waste, called transuranic or TRU waste (>100 nCurie/g but <23 Curie/1000 cm3) including some high-activity waste from reprocessing of spent fuel from old weapons reactors. All nuclear waste of any type from any source can be disposed in this formation better, safer and cheaper than in any other geologic formation.

The President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future has drafted a number of recommendations addressing nuclear energy and waste issues (BRC 2011) and three recommendations, in particular, have set the stage for a new strategy to dispose of high-level nuclear waste and to manage spent nuclear fuel in the United States:

1) interim storage for spent nuclear fuel, 2) resumption of the site selection process for a second repository, and 3) a quasi-government entity to execute the program and take control of the Nuclear Waste Fund in order to do so. The first two recommendations allow removal and storage of spent fuel from reactor sites to be used in the future, and allows permanent disposal of actual waste, while the third controls cost and administration. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NPWA 1982) provides the second repository different waste criteria, retrievability, and schedule, so massive salt returns as the candidate formation of choice. The cost (in 2007 dollars) of disposing of 83,000 metric tons of heavy metal (MTHM) high-level waste (HLW) is about $83 billion (b) in volcanic tuff, $29b in massive salt, and $77b in crystalline rock. Only in salt is the annual revenue stream from the Nuclear Waste Fund more than sufficient to accomplish this program without additional taxes or rate hikes. The cost is determined primarily by the suitability of the geologic formation, i.e., how well it performs on its own for millions of years with little engineering assistance from humans. It is critical that the states most affected by this issue (WA, SC, ID, TN, NM and perhaps others) develop an independent multi-state agreement in order for a successful program to move forward. Federal approval would follow.