Nuclear Energy and Waste Disposal in the Age of Fuel Recycling

Publication Information:

Conca J., S. Sage and J. Wright, “Nuclear Energy and Waste Disposal in the Age of Fuel Recycling”, The New Mexico Journal of Science, Vol. 45(1), pp. 13-21, 2005.

Year: 2005

The magnitude of humanity’s energy needs requires that we embrace a multitude of various energy sources and applications. For a variety of reasons, nuclear energy must be a major portion of the distribution, at least one-third. The often-cited strategic hurdle to this approach is nuclear waste disposal. Present strategies concerning disposal of nuclear waste need to be changed if the world is to achieve both a sustainable energy distribution by 2040 and solve the largest environmental issue of the 21st century – global warming. It is hoped that ambitious proposals to replace fossil fuel power generation by alternatives will drop the percentage of fossil fuel use substantially, but the absolute amount of fossil fuel produced electricity will be kept at or below its present 10 trillion kW-hrs/year. Unfortunately, the rapid growth in consumption to over 30 trillion kW-hrs/year by 2040, means that 20 trillion kW-hrs/yr of nonfossil fuel generated power has to come from other sources. If half of that comes from alternative non-nuclear, nonhydroelectric sources (an increase of 3000%), then nuclear still needs to increase by a factor of four worldwide to compensate. Many of the reasons nuclear energy did not expand after 1970 in North America (proliferation, capital costs, operational risks, waste disposal, and public fear) are no longer the intractable problems once thought. The WIPP site in New Mexico, an example of a solution to the nuclear waste disposal issue, and also to public fear, is an operating deep geologic nuclear waste repository in the massive bedded salt of the Salado Formation. WIPP has been operating for eight years, and as of this writing, has disposed of over 55,000 m3 of transuranic waste (>100 nCi/g but <23 Curie/liter) including some high activity waste. The Salado Formation is an ideal host for any type of nuclear waste, especially waste from recycled spent fuel. From the standpoint of addressing operational and environmental risk, as well as public fear, WIPP has had extensive human health and environmental monitoring. The Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center at New Mexico State University, located in Carlsbad, NM, has been the independent monitoring facility for the area around WIPP from 1993 to the present, i.e., from six years before disposal operations began to nine years of waste disposal operations ( Based on the radiological analyses of monitoring samples completed to date for area residents and site workers, and for selected aerosols, soils, sediments, drinking water and surface waters, there is no evidence of increases in radiological contaminants in the region of WIPP that could be attributed to releases from WIPP.