By DENNIS MCQUILLAN
New Mexico residents have long endured disproportionately high health and environmental risks from nuclear energy and weapons programs. It is time for the federal government to protect citizens of the state with the greatest possible level of safeguards.
Instead of performing critical site-suitability analyses for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and for two proposed spent nuclear fuel (SNF) “storage” sites near WIPP, federal agencies attempted to validate their predetermined conclusions that these sites were safe. The agencies either disregarded or rewrote siting criteria to accommodate their decisions to approve these sites.
WIPP is intended to provide deep geologic isolation of nuclear waste from the biosphere and, indeed, waste is buried 2,150 feet underground in 250-million-year-old salt beds. The following WIPP safety deficiencies, however, need resolution:
• The half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,100 years, but the WIPP safety assessment period is limited to 10,000 years.
• For years, the federal government asserted that petroleum resources were minimal to nonexistent below WIPP. But, today, WIPP is surrounded by oil and gas operations in the most prolific oil patch in the United States. The risk that oil drilling may penetrate the repository, or that liquids injected during fracking, advanced recovery and produced water disposal may migrate into WIPP salt beds, must be reevaluated.
• Risks from an artesian brine aquifer, deep-seated salt dissolution and from highly pressurized brine pockets that underlie the WIPP salt beds are not fully assessed.
• The geochemical mobility of plutonium and uranium, and possible interactions with carbon dioxide generated by waste decomposition and with geologic brine, needs further analysis.
• Additional prevention is needed for such human errors as the 2014 accident where plutonium contaminated nitrate salt packed with organic kitty litter generated heat, burst a waste drum, contaminated 21 workers, and released americium and plutonium into the atmosphere.
WIPP is certified to accept only national defense waste. The federal government, after spending decades and millions of dollars, failed to establish a permanent disposal site for spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors. SNF is highly radioactive and toxic due to fission byproducts created during power generation.
The federal government now proposes to license two commercial facilities near WIPP, one in New Mexico and one in Texas, for the “storage” of SNF for up to 120 years. Unlike the deep geologic isolation at WIPP, the proposed SNF storage facilities are less than 100 feet deep, in young alluvium, and in a region with shallow groundwater, as well as concerns about ground subsidence and sinkholes. These two sites are geologically unsuitable even for SNF “storage” and it is possible that decades of “storage” could morph into permanent disposal. Excavating SNF that has deteriorated underground for 120 years is a lurid scenario. Or will future engineers build a Chernobyl-style sarcophagus with the hope that it isolates the waste for 24,000 years?
The proposed “storage” sites for SNF could create dangers far greater than those posed by WIPP. Agricultural and petroleum industry organizations expressed concerns that the SNF facilities could damage their livelihoods. Attorney General Balderas sued the federal government to stop these ill-conceived and dangerous proposals to store SNF.
The legacy of nuclear injustice in New Mexico must end. The federal government must:
• Resolve WIPP safety deficiencies
• Disallow the reckless “storage” of spent nuclear fuel
• Establish one or more permanent repositories for SNF that provide geologic isolation
Geologist Dennis McQuillan lives in Santa Fe.