Two years ago, President Obama, under pressure from Nevada's powerful Sen. Harry Reid, terminated the Yucca Mountain project. The project had little support among Nevadans, especially in Las Vegas. The project was abandoned after the Department of Energy spent $12 billion and over 30 years on geologic studies, mining and engineering at the Nevada site.
This raises two questions: Can a suitable site be found for a deep-geologic repository for 70,000 metric tons of waste currently stored at more than 100 U.S. nuclear plants? And what will it take to build public acceptance?
To avoid another debacle for disposing of high-level nuclear waste from nuclear power plants and the defense program, the U.S. should take a consent-based approach to build public support as alternative disposal sites are considered.
Consider the DOE's success in building and operating the world's only deep-geologic repository for transuranic radioactive waste in southeastern New Mexico. Obama's blue-ribbon Commission on Nuclear Waste visited the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, known as WIPP, and was impressed. The Commission, co-chaired by former-Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, praised the successful approach used in gaining public acceptance for the WIPP facility.
Located in a salt bed a half-mile beneath the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert, WIPP opened in 1999 and has operated without interruption since then. More than 200,000 tons of transuranic waste — containing small amounts of plutonium and other long-lived nuclear materials — have been placed in chambers the length of several football fields. The waste is shipped by railroad and truck from government nuclear installations and laboratories in 16 states, some more than 1,000 miles away. There have been about 10,000 shipments with an exceptional safety record that will continue for 25 to 35 years.
WIPP is 26 miles from Carlsbad, a city of 25,000, yet business and political leaders, including the city's longtime mayor, are major supporters. Many Carlsbad residents would even consider hosting a repository for the nuclear waste intended for Yucca Mountain.
When WIPP was proposed in the 1970s, Carlsbad residents were also concerned about safety. So a watchdog group called the New Mexico Environmental Evaluation Group was formed to scrutinize every DOE report, study and action for the WIPP project. This built and assured public confidence in WIPP's safety.
There are important advantages for salt bed to contain nuclear waste. The WIPP salt bed has been geologically stable for 250 million years. Because of its plasticity, salt fills any cracks that may develop in the repository. Scientists estimate that within 75 years after WIPP's closure, the salt will completely seal the repository essentially forever.
WIPP's success can be repeated if a public consent-based approach is used.
WIPP improved Carlsbad's economy by providing 1,300 permanent jobs and several thousand support jobs. Carlsbad now has the lowest unemployment rate in New Mexico. WIPP's annual budget of $215 million stays mainly in Carlsbad, in addition to another $100 million in federal highway funds during the past decade. With this experience, New Mexico may become the site for nuclear waste disposal.
Gary Sandquist is an emeritus professor from the University of Utah.