February 24, 2012 at 4:31 pm #1928
01/25/2012 @ 6:04PM
Nuke Us: The Town That Wants America’s Worst Atomic Waste
Christopher Helman Forbes Staff
Theres a secure solution to Americas nuclear waste problem: bury it under Carlsbad, New Mexico. The locals are ready if only Washington would get out of the way.
This story appears in the Feb. 13 issue of Forbes Magazine
Bob Forrest is known for a lot of things in Carlsbad, a quiet city of 25,000 on the edge of New Mexicos empty, endless Chihuahuan Desert. He was mayor here for 16 years. Hes chairman of the local bank and owns the spanking new Fairfield Inn, which sits next to the new Chilis and the new Wal-Mart. And he helped bring 200,000 tons of deadly nuclear waste to town.
Thats not a bad thingat least not here. Unlike thousands of other places in America, where the thought of trucking in barrels of radioactive garbage from atomic weapons plants would lead to marches, face paint and, invariably, pandering politicians (witness Nevadas stalled Yucca Mountain project), Carlsbad has a different take. Its really a labor of love, says Forrest. Weve proven that nuclear waste can be disposed of in a safe, reliable way.
This attitudeYes in my backyard, if you willhas brought near permanent prosperity to this isolated spot that until recently had no endemic economic engine. Unemployment sits at 3.8%, versus 6.5% statewide and 8.5% nationally. And thanks to this projecteuphemistically known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPPNew Mexico has received more than $300 million in federal highway funds in the past decade, $100 million of which has gone into the roads around Carlsbad. WIPP is the nations only permanent, deep geologic repository for nuclear waste. The roads have to be good for the two dozen trucks a week hauling in radioactive drums brimming with the plutonium-laden detritus of Americas nuclear weapons production.
Before WIPP the areas economy was mostly limited to potash mining, oil and gas drilling, and a passel of tourists stopping on the way to Carlsbad Caverns, an hour south. The Department of Energys $6 billion program created 1,300 permanent jobs, many of them high-paid engineering positions. Energys annual budget for WIPP is $215 million, much of which stays in the community as wages. The leaders of neighboring Lea and Eddy counties have doubled down on the nuke biz, establishing a 1,000-acre atomic industrial park. Already uranium fuel maker Urenco Group has built a $3 billion fabrication plant there, employing 300. More amenities followed, too: In November Carlsbad inaugurated the Bob Forrest Youth Sports Complex. We are not blinded by the jobs, says John Waters, director of the department of economic development for Eddy County. We know what we have. We know the risks. We have a very educated public.
But if Carlsbads story showcases the upside of being willing to do the nations dirty work, it also demonstrates how difficult it can be to get the chance to do so. Since opening in 1999, WIPP has operated so smoothly and safely that Carlsbad is lobbying the feds to expand the project to take the nuclear mother lode: 160,000 more tons of the worst high-level nuclear waste in the countrythings like the half-melted reactor core of Three Mile Island and old nuclear fuel rodsthat are residing at aging nuke plants a short drive from wherever youre sitting right now.
Yet thanks to politics even more radioactive than the material itself, it hasnt happened yet and might not happen anytime soon. Though taxpayers have already spent some $12 billion mining out and engineering Yucca Mountain, 90 miles from Las Vegas, power brokers in Nevada fought the congressionally approved project from the get-go. Bowing to Nimbyand Nevadas powerful Senator Harry Reidtwo years ago President Barack Obamas Administration declared Yucca DOA. Contractors have since laid off some 1,000 workers there.
To seek some common ground Obama then set up the Blue Ribbon Commission on Americas Nuclear Future. The BRC, as its known, is tasked with looking at all the options. It likes WIPPa lot. According to its draft report last summer the BRC will insist that a consent-based approach be applied to any future site selection. WIPP, it wrote, is a model of how that can be done.
Cue the politics. New Mexico, in agreeing to WIPP, required that Congress enshrine in law a promise that the feds would not send high-level waste into the state. WIPP wont be the next Yucca unless that issue is wrangled, and reversed, by Albuquerque, Washington or anyone else with skin in the game. If they pay any attention, that is. Im absolutely incredulous that so few opinion makers even know that WIPP exists, says former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, who sits on the BRC and is a friend of Forrest.
Yucca Mountain seemed a remote enough place; except to Nevadans.
Image via Wikipedia
Still, science appears to be on the boosters side. Carlsbad has a Goldilocks geology that is the best solution yet found for entombing nuclear waste safely. Yucca Mountains volcanic tuff is prone to cracks and faults from seismic activity, which might, over thousands of years, let water seep in. Salt, on the other hand, is nearly impervious to seismic activity, quickly healing any cracks or faults and remaining completely impermeablewith no way for any water to get in or for any radiation to escape. Carlsbad sits atop the biggest salt deposit in America, stretching from New Mexico clear to Kansas. It was deposited 250 million years ago in the Permian period, when the seas receded from the shore of the ancient continent Pangea. The salt has lain undisturbed ever since.
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In the 1970s the Department of Energy floated the idea of mining out a nuclear repository in the salt under centrally located Lyons, Kans. The people didnt want it; Three Mile Island didnt help. Carlsbad made more sense; its 3,000-foot salt layer is the thickest in the country. And the state has a nuclear history as home to the Manhattan Project. The Los Alamos and Sandia national labs continue to do a lot of nuclear work. Whats more, the people of Carlsbad know salt; theyve been mining it since 1930 to go after seams of potasha mineral in high demand as fertilizer.
Carlsbads current mayor, Dale Janway, worked for 30 years as a safety director at the Intrepid mine, which he describes as an underground city with a claustrophobic warren of tunnels and rooms. All told, Carlsbads potash mines hold more than 1,000 miles of tunnels covering 100 square miles. Compared with going after potash, says Janway, digging a spacious mine to hold drums of waste is easy. The miners were all for it.
Mining the salt. Bolts are inserted into the ceiling to prevent the salt from caving in.
Photo courtesy Dept. of Energy.
Forrest and other Carlsbad leaders saw what billions in federal investment could do for their townand their businesses. Forrest moved to Carlsbad in the 1940s; his father started a chain of tire shops, Forrest Tires. Today, in addition to the Fairfield Inn, his family owns the aging Best Western hotel nearby and controls Carlsbad National Bank, of which hes chairman of the board. Having grown up selling tires, says Forrest, Ive been a salesman all my life, and WIPP is something Ive sold. He rejects the idea that hes the face of WIPP. We dont really have a face; our whole group supports it so heavily. Dinner with Mayor Janway and dozens of other pro-WIPP Carlsbadians on steak night at the Elks Lodge backs him up.
Still, it wasnt easy to sell WIPP to the rest of the state. Folks in Albuquerque and Santa Fe didnt see why they should allow trucks to traverse their roads with other states waste. When Forrest in 1990 took busloads of Carlsbadians to Albuquerque for hearings on the plan, protesters threw rocks at the bus. A common sign at the time in the windows of Santa Fe and Taos art galleries: Another business against WIPP.
To win them over, the Energy Department brought its custom-built waste-hauling canisters to Albuquerque for punishing tests. Dropped from 30 feet onto concrete slabs, smashed into steel spikes, broiled for 30 minutes in a jet-fuel infernonothing fazed them. New Mexicos then Representative Bill Richardson (later governor) dragged his feet on WIPP; Senator Domenici pushed for it in Washington. At last Energy agreed, and Congress decreed that no high-level waste would be brought to WIPP. No big deal: Congress had already ordered that stuff sent to Yucca.
Each of the travel canisters on this truck can hold 10 tons of nuclear waste.
Drivers have carried waste more than 12 million miles, with no release of radiation.
Photo credit: Chip Simons.
Forrest says Carlsbad and DOE have contended continuously with 15 different oversight groups throughout the construction and operation of WIPP. We were in a fishbowl. They were consulted on anything that happened at WIPP, says Forrest. I dont have a problem with it, but you couldnt run a business like that.
On Mar. 26, 1999 the townsfolk of Carlsbad gathered to cheer the first truck to deliver waste to WIPP. Then, as now, it passed through barbed-wire gates and armed guards to deposit its load in one of a series of giant hangar buildings, the most secure of which has concrete-reinforced walls 4.5 feet thick. Inside, past the airlocks, I was half-expecting workers in moon suits, but its just jeans and steel toes. The drums they handlefilled with scraps of machinery, rags, sludge and clothing contaminated with plutonium have been packed at the Energy Departments labs in Idaho and South Carolina. You can stand next to most drums without concern. Others are so hot they can only be handled by heavily shielded machines.
The drums final resting place is down an elevator 2,150 feet into the salt. Its dark, dusty, dry. Unlike Carlsbad Caverns, there are no stalactites or stalagmites and no dripping water. WIPPs tunnels and rooms have 15-foot ceilings, enough to stack drums three high. So far its swallowed 10,200 shipments totaling 200,000 tons impregnated with 5 tons of plutonium. To get that stuff to WIPP drivers have logged 12 million miles with loaded trucks and 10 million miles empty. Drivers work in pairs when hauling full loads and cant get hired if theyve ever had a traffic violation. There have been three accidents in 13 years. In the worst, a driver jackknifed with an empty load. The waste container performed as designed, detached from the truck and rolled to a stop. No damage.
Likewise, only a few mishaps down in the salt. In 1995 a worker broke his leg in an electric cart accident. In 2008 a forklift operator gouged an inch-long gash in a drum. No radiation escaped the thick plastic bag inside. None has escaped WIPP, either. All the air that circulates out of the WIPP buildings passes through HEPA filters. Carlsbads monitoring center picked up heightened levels of radioactive iodine in the air weeks after Japans Fukushima disaster but hasnt yet sniffed any leakage from WIPP.
Whats more, building out Yucca to hold 100,000 tons of high-level waste would cost on the order of $80 billion, figures Jim Conca, a consultant with RJ Lee Group who previously worked as director of repository science for the Energy Department. Entombing the same waste in a WIPP 2.0 would cost less than $30 billion. The feds have already collected nearly that much from nuclear reactor owners for the Nuclear Waste Fund. Only in salt is the annual revenue from the fund sufficient to accomplish this program without additional taxes or rate hikes, says Conca.
Even if the moneys there, and the will, theres still a lingering question of how the salt would react when in contact with canisters of high-level waste, 600 degrees hot. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez has said she tentatively supports expanding the mission of WIPP but only on the condition that science must be the decision maker. What could go wrong?
Trapped within the salt are microscopic pockets of 250-million-year-old seawater. Because heat increases the solubility of salt in water, the more heat, the more salt dissolved. One theory suggests that high heat will attract nearby water toward the waste canisters, potentially corroding them. Ned Elkins, Los Alamos labs chief salt repository scientist, who works at WIPP, says all current modeling indicates that neither the heat nor water should pose any significant problems, but we have to let the science speak for itself, to erase all doubt. The DOE has begun a $40 million study to prove it out, but conclusive results will take at least three years. I sure hope it doesnt take that long, says Senator Domenici. So close and yet so far.
Good thing Forrest and crew have plenty to work on while they wait. Theyve already attracted Urenco and its fuel plant to their nuclear industrial park. Now theyre seeking to build a surface-level facility to store used nuclear fuel rods in 100-ton, 15-foot-tall steel-and-concrete casks. Many reactors already use these dry casks to free up room in their cooling ponds. Theyre impervious to attack; crashing a plane into one would be as effective as throwing an egg at a fire hydrant. If the counties manage to guide that project through regulatory hurdles, their next dream is to attract a reprocessing plant, which would take the 95% of energy still left in old rods and turn it into new ones. France and Japan do this, but the practice is banned in the U.S. because it yields tiny volumes of ultrabad waste that could be devastating in the wrong hands.
Congressman Steve Pearce (RN.M.) remains more circumspect, reflecting the doublespeak that Nimby coerces: Im supportive, but everything said today might have to be unsaid tomorrow. Theres the politics of the nation, politics of state, politics of local, and all have to align.
Pearce says hes focused on making sure theres enough funding for WIPP to do its original job. The Energy Departments budget for the project has fallen in recent years from $250 million to $215 million; last year WIPP contractors shed 130 workers; those who remain are handling fewer shipments and less waste than before.
A schematic of WIPP. Image via Wikipedia
Does this make any sense? Once its here and down that hole, the storage costs at other facilities go down dramatically, says a Department of Energy official, pointing to the 21 nuclear facilities across the country that have been cleaned up entirely after their waste was shipped to WIPP. There are nine sites left. They should save money for the nation by sending us stuff as quickly as possible.
Forrest finds the whole thing ridiculous. Its the obvious choice. We want this to be the next Yucca Mountain; we are tired of waiting, he says. The way he sees it, WIPP has proven itself to be an ideal resting place for the stuff, while the people of Carlsbad have proven that theyre comfortable with it. The federal government, he says, should jump at the chance to shut the book on Yucca. We are addressing a national issue, says Forrest. Why is this such a hard sell?
February 24, 2012 at 4:34 pm #4705
1/25/2012 @ 6:04PM
A Yimby Boom In A Nimby Nation
Christopher Helman Forbes Staff
When it comes to doing
doing the countrys dirty work, Carlsbad is hardly alone. Hard-pressed areas across the country are coming to the grown-up conclusion that they will never become hotbeds for venture capital or attract Stanford or Google (or even Toyota) to open a satellite campus. Instead, theyre inviting indestructible and inescapable industries, like prisons, dumps and oil and gas drilling to townfostering Yes In My Backyard success in a Nimby nation. Theres big parts of the country that dont want to get their fingers dirty, says FORBES contributor Joel Kotkin, the renowned demographer and author of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 (Penguin Press, 2010). In prime Nimby states like New York and California, says Kotkin, they dont want growth; they want asset inflation.
The dichotomy is biggest in states enjoying oil and gas booms brought about by the hydraulic fracking revolution. Since 2009 Pennsylvania has seen gas-drilling jobs explode from 60,000 to 160,000 and related economic activity jump from $4.7 billion to $13 billion a year. North Dakota has an unemployment rate of just 3.5% (lowest in the U.S.), and in the past year has seen oil and gas employment increase 39% and construction jobs 20%. In contrast, in New York State, where the state budget is an annual apocalypse and the economy is ever more beholden to Wall Streets boom-and-bust cycles, politicians still cant muster the will to shoulder the risks and allow gas fracking, though studies show it would create 40,000 jobs in some of the states most depressed regionsfor 30 years. California could solve its fiscal problems if it unlocked its oil and gas, but just try to permit anything in Santa Barbara, says Kotkin. Not everyone in America is afraid to get their hands dirty.
Here are five Yimby capitals:
Boom Town for the Bakken Shale, Williston is drawing workers from all over the nation. Oilfield hands make more than $100,000 a year. The number of drilling rigs is up fivefold in two years.
Laissez-faire zoning laws make it easy to tear down old and build new. Houstons port complex hosts massive refineries, while busy factories build the gear that feeds the shale gas boom.
Pinal County, Ariz.
It might be better named Penal for its half-dozen privately operated prisons that employ thousands. The ranks of the unemployed are swelled by families of inmates who move nearby. The county is also wooing Union Pacific to build a giant rail yard.
Governor John Kasich is a fracking fan and booster for gas drilling in the Utica Shale. Shell Oil is thinking of building a world-scale petrochem plant there, while Vallourec and ArcelorMittal have recently ramped up steelmaking.
New Orleans, La.
A cap-ex boom has followed in the wake of destruction left by Hurricane Katrina. Steel giant Nucor is building a new $3.4 billion furnace complex in St. James Parish that will eventually employ 1,000.
February 24, 2012 at 4:36 pm #4704
Obama’s Nuclear Commission Issues Final Report, Urges Immediate Action On Atomic Waste
1/26/2012 @ 3:31PM
Christopher Helman Forbes Staff
Today President Obamas Blue Ribbon Commission on Americas Nuclear Future issued its final report urging immediate action on a number of fronts to deal with the long-intractable issue of what to do with Americas hundreds of thousands of tons of nuclear waste. According to the official press release from the commission, their final report hews closely to the draft released last year.
For some thoughts on the report and what it implies for the nation, I reached out to Dr. James Conca, senior scientist with the RJ Lee Group in Hanford, Wash. Conca who worked for many years as a repository scientist on the Department of Energys Yucca Mountain Project, as well as the New Mexicos Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (see my new article Nuke Us: The Town That Wants Americas Worst Atomic Waste) is intimately knowledgable about the issues involved and the hurdles to be overcome in finding a lasting solution to our atomic legacy. Heres Concas take on the BRC findings:
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Nuke Us: The Town That Wants America’s Worst Atomic Waste
To some, the perceived inability of the United States to dispose of high-level nuclear waste justifies a moratorium on expansion of nuclear power in this country. I see it more as an example of how science yields to social pressure, even on a subject as technical as nuclear waste. Most of the problems stem from confusion on the part of the public and their elected officials, not from a lack of scientific knowledge. We know where to put nuclear waste, how to put it there, how much it will cost, and how well it will work. And its all about the geology.
The Yucca Mountain Project, the nations first selected nuclear disposal site, could work as engineered, but the cost would be prohibitive. Something must fill its void. The Blue Ribbon Commission has just released a number of recommendations addressing nuclear energy and waste issues, and three specific recommendations have set the stage for a new strategy to dispose of high-level nuclear waste and to manage spent nuclear fuel in the future. They are:
1. interim storage for spent nuclear fuel,
2. resumption of the site selection process for a second repository, and
3. a quasi-government entity, or FedCorp, to execute the program and take control of the Nuclear Waste Fund in order to do so.
The first recommendation would allow storage of spent fuel from reactor sites either to be used in future reactors or eventually disposed, without needing to retrieve it from deep in the earth.
The second recommendation would allow permanent disposal of actual high level waste that has no value since it is the waste from reprocessing old fuel. This real waste needs to be disposed of promptly. It has cost billions to manage this waste in places that were always meant to be temporary. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act allows this second repository different criteria so other rock formations can return as candidate sites with complimentary features and the whole program can move forward faster.
The third recommendation concerns costs and administration. This quasi-government entity would be focused on this mission alone, concentrating on costs as it will be limited to the Nuclear Waste Fund, and on consensus, seeking agreement from all levels from local to tribal to State to Federal, something stressed by the Blue Ribbon Commission. Since nuclear waste has become a State-rights issue, it is critical that the States most affected, i.e., those that have the problem and those that have a solution, develop an independent multi-state agreement in order for a successful program to move forward. This multi-state compact would then approach the quasi-government entity, then that group would approach the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and if that passes, Federal approval would follow.
These recommendations, along with others from the Blue Ribbon Commission that address energy and research, outline an optimistic path forward for an essential industry that will be a significant part of our energy mix well into the future. Congress and the Administration should support them. From rumblings on the Hill, it sounds like that support will grow on both sides of the aisle.
Then again, politics could stand in the way. Congress will not easily give up control of the Nuclear Waste Fund to this quasi-government entity or FedCorp. And the lawsuits flying around from the industry and the States will muddy the waters. Thats why I stress the States most impacted have to take charge, and I think they will. The FedCorp would then be able to carry it out as a partner and fund it without Congressional appropriations. The key step is the forming the FedCorp and repealing parts of the 1987 amendment to the NWPA. No new laws have to be written, just clarified.
The BRCs recommendations provide a path forward that everyone can accept where only strife and discord existed before.
Wed love to hear your thoughts on the viability of these recommendations and whether theres enough political will to push them through. Also, for a good look at the town that thinks it holds the key to disposing of our nuclear trash, check out my new cover story, Nuke Us: The Town That Wants Americas Worst Atomic Waste, where commission member Sen. Pete Dominici (ret.) shares his thoughts on where the waste should go.
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