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My view: A better way needed for spent nuclear fuel

By Don Hancock

Published: Friday, May 25 2012 12:14 a.m. MDT

As a 40-year-old New Mexico nonprofit organization that has been involved with nuclear waste issues for decades, we are dismayed at the factual errors in the recent My View, "Government needs to solve safe disposal of spent nuclear fuel" (May 22). Gary M. Sandquist also neglected to discuss that for decades New Mexicans have vigorously objected to spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste coming to New Mexico and that there are major technical problems with salt formations.

Space prevents a comprehensive list of factual errors. One whopper, and a supposed selling point for nuclear waste, is the assertion: "Carlsbad now has the lowest unemployment rate in New Mexico." In fact, there are more than 150 New Mexico cities and towns with lower unemployment rates than Carlsbad.

zipatlas.com/us/nm/city-comparison/unemployment-rate.2.htm

Official federal government statistics show that Eddy County, where Carlsbad is located, has not had the lowest unemployment rate in the state during any of the past 9 years.

www.ers.usda.gov/data/unemployment/RDList2.asp?ST=NM

On numerous occasions during the past 35 years, New Mexicans have objected to spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste storage or disposal in the state. As a result, no politician has won statewide office advocating such storage or disposal. Also as a result of public opposition, the federal law governing the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the nuclear waste disposal site that Sandquist promotes, prohibits spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. WIPP Land Withdrawal Act, Section 12.

Contrary to the OpEd's assertion that "There are important advantages for salt bed to contain nuclear waste," independent scientists, including at the U.S. Geological Survey, decades ago concluded that salt beds or salt domes were not good candidates for thermally hot spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste because of the high solubility and the instability that the heat would cause. pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1978/0779/report.pdf.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission more recently concluded: "Salt formations currently are being considered as hosts only for reprocessed nuclear materials because heat-generating waste, like spent nuclear fuel, exacerbates a process by which salt can rapidly deform" (Federal Register, October 9, 2008, p. 59555).

If the "public consent-based approach," supported by Sandquist and the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, means anything, then a state like New Mexico that knows about nuclear waste disposal and has explicitly not consented should be eliminated from consideration for spent nuclear fuel or high-level waste storage and disposal.

Instead, as a nation we need to do many things, including:

1. Require that spent nuclear fuel be safely stored at or near nuclear reactor sites at least for decades, while a scientifically sound, publicly acceptable disposal program is developed.

2. Take the decades needed to decide what kind of safety standards are required for nuclear waste disposal sites and then develop adequate technical standards. (Should the standard be 0 releases, or projected releases that could kill no more than X number of people, or some other?)

3. Determine how much spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste will need disposal to better consider how many sites are necessary.

4. See if WIPP can fulfill its mission to demonstrate whether the federal government and its contractors, at the cost of billions of dollars, can: (a) safely operate WIPP to meet the "start clean, stay clean" standard; (b) safely transport waste through more than 20 states without serious accidents or release of radioactive or hazardous contaminants; (c) meet commitments to clean up transuranic waste at about 20 Department of Energy nuclear weapons sites; and (d) safely close, decontaminate, and decommission the WIPP site, beginning in about 2030 or earlier.

Don Hancock works for the Southwest Research and Information Center located in Albuquerque, NM.

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