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USA’s nuclear wastes can’t stay in above-ground canisters forever

Who will be the ultimate bearer of the nation’s nuclear waste? Mashable
by Mark Kaufman, Editors Nandita Raghuram and Brittany Levine Beckman  Illustrations Vicky Leta, 25 Oct 19,  In Mashable’s series Wasted, we dig into the myriad ways we’re trashing our planet. Because it’s time to sober up.When future tourists journey through a desolate, sun-baked patch of the southeastern New Mexico desert, some 20 miles outside of the 21st-century oil boomtown of Carlsbad, they’ll spot dozens of giant pillars on the flat terrain, somewhat like the great stone heads looming on the treeless hills of Easter Island. If the intrigued desert visitors wander close enough to the 25-foot high granite monuments, erected by the United States Department of Energy, they’ll see inscriptions written in seven different, perhaps archaic, languages.

And if they dare wander past the perimeter of the grandiose columns, the travelers will find an open-air structure made of 15-foot high walls, emblazoned with frightening pictographs and symbols. Taken together, the U.S. agency hopes to convey a clear message to anyone who enters.Keep out. Leave. Don’t dig. Something bad lurks beneath the ground. “This ‘stay out’ sign warns future generations of the danger of intrusion,” the Department of Energy wrote in its blueprint of this imposing message.

In 1990, the agency convened a group of linguists, writers, anthropologists, and an assortment of other scientists to think about how, in centuries or thousands of years (perhaps long after the fall of the U.S. empire), they might discourage people from revealing what lay 2,000 feet below the rocky soil and dashing roadrunners: hundreds of thousands of containers filled with radioactive sludge, soil, mops, brooms, and gloves from the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons program. The sealed casks would be a danger for at least 10 millennia.

Today, the edifices in this corner of southeastern New Mexico are profoundly less romantic than the government’s designs for foreboding temple-like grounds. Here lies the fenced compound of the beige, block buildings of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, where the federal government has trucked in radioactive waste for 20 years and counting, and where the waste will stay, forever.
Of course, most of the radioactive waste in the U.S. today isn’t stored in New Mexico [illustration by Vicky Leta, Mashable). Rather, much of the nuclear rummage is the spent radioactive fuel from power plants  ……..the waste is scattered around the country at the very nuclear power plants where it was used, because the U.S. hasn’t decided on a place to permanently deposit the deadly dross. But the concrete and metal storage casks, often stockpiled directly on the surface in places like the idyllic California coast, age, crack, and decay over time. The waste can’t stay there forever.
Today, nobody knows where America’s commercial nuclear waste will ultimately find its radioactive grave. ……

It’s got to go somewhere,” said Allison Macfarlane, the former chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission and professor of science and technology policy at George Washington University.

“The worst option is leaving it above ground indefinitely,” stressed Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist and expert in nuclear weapons policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy group…..  there’s no good place to store the forever waste. “There’s no best option. There’s only the least bad option,”………

One day, WIPP might be joined by another nuclear waste site — but this one exposed on New Mexico’s desert surface.

Between the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, about 70 miles apart, lies 1,000 acres of rough desert scrub. Holtec International, a company that sells sturdy containers for storing nuclear waste, has a scheme for these 1,000 acres that would make them a lot of money. The company wants to transform this forsaken desert into a concrete field holding 10,000 containers of spent fuel from all the nation’s nuclear power plants, collectively called the HI-STORE Consolidated Interim Story Facility. “Interim” is a somewhat deceiving word here. Taxpayers would essentially rent these thick casks until our underperforming Congress finds a truly permanent place to store the spent fuel from nuclear plants. The waste could stay there for 40 years. Or, if the casks are continually restored, much longer……..

For now, Holtec’s waste depository is not close to becoming a reality. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the initial stages of “scoping” the project. And even if the agency approved it, Holtec would have to contend with a regulatory fortress vigilantly guarded by the Environmental Protection Agency, the state of New Mexico, and not least the ruthless watch of Hancock, who’s well known in nuclear policy circles. “We’re not going to let [Holtec] happen,” he scoffed. “That’s just absurd.”  ……..
NEVER NEVADA The U.S. has nuked the hell out of Nevada………

The waste must eventually go deep, deep underground, said Lyman, the nuclear expert. The irradiated can can’t be punted down the road all century. Nuclear plants are brimming with this stuff. “The Department of Energy is on the hook to produce some type of a solution as the reactor facilities are filling up,” emphasized Notre Dame’s Burns.

There’s only one way that can happen: not forcing, not dictating, but collaborating with a community, somewhere, to allow a geologic depository, stressed Macfarlane. The site would need to be heavily guarded in perpetuity. “The question is can they be compensated enough and their concerns be mitigated enough that they’re willing to accept it,” said Lyman.

There’s only one way that can happen: not forcing, not dictating, but collaborating with a community, somewhere, to allow a geologic depository, stressed Macfarlane. The site would need to be heavily guarded in perpetuity. “The question is can they be compensated enough and their concerns be mitigated enough that they’re willing to accept it,” said Lyman……..

while the waste can’t just sit exposed on the surface forever, it could be some 50 years before the casks become an imminent threat.

Indeed, nuclear waste is “out of sight out of mind,” noted Lyman. This is in stark contrast to an environmental threat like relentlessly rising global temperatures, wherein the well-predicted consequences of a warmer globe are conspicuously unfolding today: wildfires torching more land, the melting of the great ice sheets, unprecedented deluges, overheated infrastructure, an incessantly warming ocean, and beyond……..

If New Mexico’s nuclear heritage is somehow ever lost, perhaps by the passage of millennia and ravages of time, tall monuments will stand in the windswept desert for thousands of years, hopefully warding off any curious pilgrims, explorers, or future industrialists from the decaying consequences of war, weaponry, and defense. Whatever symbols the Department of Energy ultimately etches into the walls of the roofless, sunlit temple where WIPP once stood, they better be damn scary.

October 26, 2019 - Posted by | USA, wastes

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