Is it Nuclear Waste or Nuclear Fuel?

Recently there was an article in the paper about an interim nuclear waste storage facility to be located on the border of Lea and Eddy counties. The first thing that needs clarification is the material they want to store there is not waste, but unused nuclear fuel (uranium) from Nuclear Power Station around the country. This consolidation is to secure nuclear fuel for tomorrow’s advanced nuclear reactors that generate electricity.

What is being stored at WIPP is nuclear waste or properly stated, radioactive waste. The difference between waste and fuel should be very obvious just from the terminology. Waste is no longer usable and fuel is usable. What is stored at WIPP is the left over radioactive tools, clothing and other junk from the Manhattan Project and the Cold War era. None of it is reusable.

In the clean up process at various DOE sites around the country, radioactive items are containerized, shipped by truck and stored 2,000 ft. deep at WIPP. Roswell’s relief route was built to transport this material around our downtown. WIPP has been shut down since 2014 because of a very small leak of radioactive particles and will be reopened at the end of 2016.

What is interesting is that the trucks never stopped hauling the material from across the country. An alternate site called Waste Control Specialists (WCS), located in West Texas was used instead. There the containers have been queuing for final delivery to WIPP the last two+ years. WCS was to be paid up to $8.8 million to store the waste from LANL for as long as one year. Well, it is still there and will cost another $8.8M per year for as long as it is stored there. That is good money for WCS and lost revenue for the tax payers in New Mexico.

WCS is only 1 hour east of WIPP, 2 hours east from Carlsbad and 3 hours southeast from Roswell. The difference between the two sites is that WIPP is underground and cost billions to design, build and maintain (since the 1970s) while WCS is above ground and cost a fraction to build and maintain. Now WCS has submitted a license request to be one of the interim locations to store Nuclear Power Facility’s unused nuclear fuel rods for future use in molten salt reactors (MSR).

Lea and Eddy counties are also requesting a license to be an above ground interim storage site for the same material that WCS has requested. If the people of New Mexico were smart (that means educated about radiation) they would support this effort with Lea and Eddy counties. There is no reason that both sites couldn’t be used and both States benefit from the jobs and revenue that will be generated.

Where has this unused uranium fuel material been stored for the last 60 years? All of the unused fuel rods have been store at each individual nuclear power station, even the sites that have been shuttered for years. Yucca Mountain was going to be the central repository in the US but Senator Harry (Carry) Reid of Nevada and President Obama cancelled that project back in 2009. The Blue Ribbon Commission of 2014 decided to find consensual interim sites instead. Lea and Eddy counties are one of those two consensual locations so far. WCS, just across the border in Andrews, TX is the other.

Why are these locations ideal for storing unused uranium fuel rods from existing nuclear power plants? To be quit frank, these rods have been stored around the country for decades without incident. Personally, I think they should just leave them where they are and invest in building advance nuclear reactors at the same site to use the fuel. The infrastructure is already in place and connected to the grid. Moving the material to another location is a waste of money to solve a false psychological concern.

This material goes through a two stage process for storing. The first 5 years it is store in water pools to cool down the uranium fuel rods. Remember, this stuff was burning at very high temperatures to create the steam that drove the generators that produce the electricity. After 5 years the fuel rods are then place in dry storage that consists of canisters that can be sealed for 100 to 300 years. Can you imagine how much technology will have advanced during that time period?  

The good news is we don’t have to wait 100 years because the advance reactor that can consume this fuel was developed 50 years ago but never commercialized. You can thank both Nixon and Carter for that because they cancelled two projects that would have eliminated the uranium fuel storage issues of the last half century. Thankfully, the US has finally shared these reactor designs with the public domain and China has leaped for the opportunity to build them.

One of these years we will have an Administration (hopefully Trump) that will understand the power of the atom (besides bombs). And some day they will understand the benefits of unused uranium fuel rods being stored for use in advanced nuclear reactors.

That day may start soon because the Fiscal 2017 Senate Appropriations Bill has plans to invest nearly $200 million in advanced reactors, like the LFTR design that I actively support. More importantly the Senate bill brings reform and transparency to the NRC budget to allow necessary changes for molten salt reactor designs to be formally regulated and built in the United States. Hey, it’s not much money but it’s a start.

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