Does New Mexico need another radioactive waste site?

March 31, 2019

I believe that the logic of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s current dilemma about disposal of high-level radioactive waste suggests that further site and transportation studies be done. Currently, the waste is stored on-site at operating and decommissioned nuclear power plants

There are those who would apply the adage, “He who hesitates is lost,” and advise moving ahead full steam, saying that, after all, aren’t there enough in-depth analyses, blue ribbon studies and cost/benefit calculations done to require an old-fashioned landfill for their storage? Let’s get on with it! You and I will get shovels and bury the stuff (high-level radioactive waste) as best we can.

Of course, the above argument takes the view of those who advocate near-term action on the issue and carries it to a somewhat ridiculous extreme. Having had training in mathematics, I was taught in graduate school to test a hypothesis by examining its extreme, or limiting, cases. The hypothesis that I wish to test is the following: Something needs to be done within the next five years about the approximately 47,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste residing on-site as mentioned above.

Yes, reader, you are correct if you surmise that I take the viewpoint of “look before you leap” on the emotionally charged hypothesis above. Let me explain a few reasons why:

• The NRC has done a study which indicates that high-level radioactive waste can be stored safely at existing reactor sites for at least another hundred years. Of course, “safely” is a relative term when applied to high-level radioactive waste, I will take it to mean “more safely” than it can be when stored underground in a depository. The points that follow are meant to bolster that finding of the NRC study.

• Underground sites that are now, or were, being considered as depositories of high-level radioactive waste are fraught with problems. The Yucca Mountain, Nev., proposal involved “isolating” the high-level radioactive waste in an igneous (volcanic) formation. Such lava formations contain many air pockets and hence are susceptible to the seepage of underground water, much of which contains dissolved salt, and saline solutions are corrosive to most metals (high-level radioactive waste containers), with the exception of titanium, which is very expensive. The proposed site in southeastern New Mexico has perhaps greater potential saline problems of its own since deposition is proposed in, or near, existing underground salt formations, near which there were once ancient seas that upon evaporation, created salt formations. Now, gentle reader, I ask you, is it not likely that, over millions of years (the time required for the high-level waste to decay to ore levels) groundwater could encroach on those salt formations, creating a corrosive saline solution and releasing deadly high-level radioactive waste into Mother Earth.

• What about the existential threats of mishaps in transporting (by truck, train and barge) high-level radioactive waste to a depository? Is moving the high-level waste not more dangerous than continued storage on the reactor sites? What about the threat of terrorist attacks aimed at high-level radioactive waste? Hasn’t transportation always been a favorite target of terrorists? Witness the 9/11 attack, the London subway bombing or too many airline hijackings to count.

• There are also obvious dangers associated with oil and gas exploration, slant drilling and fracking that are, and will be for the foreseeable future, common activities in the Permian Basin, a significant part of which lies in southeastern New Mexico. These activities could well violate the integrity of the proposed high-level radioactive waste site.

I realize that I raise many more questions than I can answer, but that only strengthens my case for the “look before you leap” approach to high-level radioactive waste deposition. What has been called “high-level radioactive waste isolation” may turn into “high-level radioactive waste violation,” especially when one considers the 300,000 years required to store this deadly material.

John McClure is a retired mathematician, an avid hiker and 50-year resident of this beautiful state.