The U.S. nuclear waste storage record is abysmal

After wasting about 12 billion dollars of ratepayers’ money, it was finally determined that the NRC’s chosen deep geologic waste repository wasn’t up to the task of safely storing transuranic waste for a million years. This is how long this supremely hazardous material must be isolated from humanity and the environment according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Of course the nuclear industry and it’s many supporters in congress claim that the abandonment was simply a political decision by the Obama administration (even as that administration uses taxpayer money to guarantee loans for building new reactors). But there was plenty of sound scientific criticism, and Nevada wasn’t keen on having all of the weapons waste forever, especially since it’s in a region of high seismic risk.

On April 23 a small discovery team enters Panel 7 located in Room 7 of the WIPP underground.

On April 23 a small discovery team enters Panel 7 located in Room 7 of the WIPP underground.

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said that we didn’t know enough 25 to 30 years ago and we can now look at options like storing it in a salt dome as is being done unsuccessfully at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (see below). Officials still don’t know what went wrong when many workers AND a nearby town were contaminated with plutonium, but they maintain that they “are coming very, very close to the answer“. Nearly 6 months after the failure to contain, the burial site is still not operational. Just five days after an underground truck fire closed the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, the Energy Department awarded the contractor operating the nuclear repository $1.9 million for “excellent” performance. Although the dump is still leaking, Congress has approved 236 million dollars for FY 2015 operations, plus another 120 million for ‘clean up’.

Yet despite the absence of even a plan for disposal of commercial nuclear waste after having had 70 years to solve the problem, the NRC has ‘confidence’ that the concentrated, highly radioactive, long-lived commercial nuclear waste will be safely kept out of the biosphere for a million years (I’m not making this up), thus allowing reactor owners to continue making the waste. Just 5% of this radwaste has been moved to dry casks; the rest is in pools, often without containment, which requiring active cooling and are attractive targets for terrorists.

Well that’s just the 70,000 tons commercial radwaste, how’s the Department of Energy been doing with it’s 13,000 tons of high-level waste from the weapons program? The DOE has overseen the contamination of Denver’s public water supply with plutonium and tritium (also see this first person account), and massive transuranic pollution in Hanford, Washington. But they stored radwaste without major incident for a full 15 millionths of their target period. You’ve got to admit, that’s a start!

15 years after opening their Waste Isolation Pilot Project in a salt dome in Carlsbad, New Mexico, they’ve closed it after contaminating the repository, a nearby town and 17 workers with plutonium.

My view is that continued production of radioactive waste without any idea of how to keep it out of the environment is immoral.

– David Agnew

US nuclear site fire ‘was preventable’

BBC News
14 March 2014

Maintenance and safety lapses were at the root of a lorry fire that shut down the only US underground nuclear waste repository in February, a report says.

The report also cited problems with emergency response and oversight at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), outside Carlsbad, New Mexico.

The state’s two senators called the findings “deeply concerning”.

WIPP, which holds specific kinds of defence nuclear waste, remains closed after a radiation leak last month.

It is still unclear if the fire and the leak, which contaminated 17 workers, are related. A separate report on the leak is expected in the upcoming weeks.

The accidents are the first major incidents at the salt repository, which began taking radioactive waste from US defence sites 15 years ago.

‘Nuclear versus mine’
In a report released on Friday, the US energy department’s Accident Investigation Board (AIB) found the 5 February fire was preventable.

The root cause, the board wrote, was the failure of the current and previous contractors running the site to “adequately recognise and mitigate the hazard regarding a fire in the underground”.

Lorries carrying salt were not maintained or cleaned often enough to prevent the build-up of combustible materials and the onboard automatic fire suppression system had been deactivated.

“A nuclear versus mine culture exists where there are significant differences in the maintenance of waste-handling versus non-waste-handling equipment,” the report said.

At a community meeting in Carlsbad on Thursday to preview the report, the lead investigator, Ted Wyka, praised the 86 workers who were half-mile underground in the mine when the fire started, saying they “did everything they could” to tell others to evacuate.

But a number of safety systems and processes failed, Mr Wyka said. Emergency strobe lights were not activated for five minutes and not all workers heard the evacuation announcement.

One worker also switched the air system from normal to filtration mode, which sent smoke billowing through the tunnels.

Six were treated for smoke inhalation after the fire.

Jose Franco, who runs the energy department’s field office in Carlsbad, choked up as he addressed the meeting, saying that at first, he took the findings personally.

“But I think what’s important [is] we definitely got away with not … having anyone seriously hurt,” Mr Franco said. “So we need to learn from that. It is what I wanted to hear, and I wanted the truth. We don’t need any sugar-coating.”

Hours before, the current contractor at the site demoted the facility’s president and project manager.

U.S. government weapons sites which contribute high-level waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

U.S. government weapons sites which contribute high-level waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

While the report cited the site’s contractor and the field office for gaps in oversight, it also recommended the agency headquarters needed to “re-evaluate resources” applied to WIPP.

In February, Eddy County Commissioner Susan Crockett told the BBC there had been “a lag in funding for maintenance at WIPP”.

“We’ve been asking for $10m for the last three years just for maintenance,” she said.

Testing of the underground site has continued since the leak and workers are expected to re-enter the site as early as this weekend.

From the BBC News

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