Holtec International has proposed placing used fuel rods from all U.S. nuclear reactors in a shallow burial site near WIPP. Two recent editorials by the Albuquerque Journal feature the point of view of Holtec executives, who painted too rosy a view of the safety issues this proposed facility could present.
There is pressure from the public to move used fuel rods away from their current locations – the reactor sites – especially when reactors have been shut down. The risks of storage in casks are low, the risks of transport are higher; in either case the failure of a single cask, whether through natural degradation processes or terrorism, could release more radiation than did the accidents at Chernobyl or Fukushima.
After removal from a reactor, the fuel rods are placed in pools of water, which allows this high-level waste to cool. After several years of cooling, they are placed into casks. Radioactivity given off by these fuel rods remains dangerous to all life for at least 10,000 years. They are much more radioactive than the waste at WIPP.
The canister design approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that Holtec proposes is a thin-walled design, with an interior 5/8-inch stainless-steel cask holding fuel rods. That is placed into another stainless-steel cask, with lead and boron in between to abate radiation. Two vent holes in the exterior cask allow cooling air to flow.
Casks need to cool to 400 degrees Celsius to allow safe transport. The NRC estimates very low risk of cask failure for at least 20 years. However, it will take 20 to 30 years for the casks to cool enough for transport. Given that cask cracking has been observed after 10 years, ultimate failure seems likely.
The long-term solution is likely to be underground burial at a well-researched location. It is unlikely that this high-level waste will be cool enough for a long-term underground repository until about 60 years after it is removed from the reactor.
The proposed Holtec interim storage facility has numerous fatal procedural and structural flaws. Alkaline soils there are corrosive. Fencing the site will not protect the area from armor-piercing artillery launched by terrorists from either of the two roads surrounding the site. There will be no continuous monitoring program to detect leaks. There is no plan on how to deal with leaking canisters. The data on radiation exposure to workers is proprietary. Transport vibration could cause cracking of the fuel rods, after which they cannot be safely transported at all.
The best transport is via rail at low speeds, but the railroads have not been contracted. The transportation casks have not been tested to failure: what about a head-on collision of two trains, or trains falling off a bridge?
The storage plan should be an integrated one, which industry experts admit is not the current approach. The movement of casks should be minimized. Unless a permanent repository is developed, the proposed interim site could become permanent. WIPP was studied as a transuranic radioactive waste site, not a high-level waste site, and no high-level waste repository exists.
It is no wonder that pecan farmers, dairy farmers, and the oil, gas and tourism industries are worried. One accident could shut down the entire region.
After 10,000 canisters have been sent to southeast New Mexico, at least one serious accident is likely to occur, based on Department of Energy analysis performed by Sandia engineers regarding shipping high-level waste to Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Your grandkids may never get to visit Carlsbad Caverns. Are the 50 to 100 jobs that Holtec would bring worth the risk of 10 centuries of contamination?