BY T. DOUGLAS REILLY
Much has been written about constructing a nuclear waste storage facility in southeastern New Mexico. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already granted Holtec an initial license for construction and for a similar facility in west Texas.
The mayor of Carlsbad, speaking also for Hobbs, has written a SF New Mexican letter supporting this (My View: Dale Janway, Southeastern New Mexico wants nuclear storage, Jan 29, 2022). This facility would be halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs.
Nuclear Watch NM and the Los Alamos Study Group oppose the facility. Senate Bill 53 would ban such facilities in the state. See the Sunday New Mexican “House committee opposes waste storage plan.” Governor Grisham and our congressional delegation have all spoken against it.
I wish to comment on the technical and safety aspects of nuclear waste (spent fuel) storage. Holtec would place spent fuel elements at reactors in casks which would be transported to NM. While I support this if built and operated correctly, I’ll try to avoid addressing opposing arguments like Not In My Back Yard, NIMBY, and concern over things nuclear. Questions regarding radiation leaks, accidents, cask safety, transfer of spent fuel to casks, and transportation to New Mexico are very valid concerns.
The casks are large, thick-walled cylindrical containers. Dry cask storage has been extensively studied and implemented in at least 18 countries including Canada, Germany, Japan, United Kingdom, and USA. As of 2009, 22% of US spent fuel was in dry cask storage. Nuclear fuel fissions in a reactor for about three years. At a refueling shutdown, it’s moved to a large cooling pond. Initially it’s highly radioactive and thermally hot; water cools the fuel and shields personnel from radiation. While there are isotopes with very long half-lives, most of the radiation decays during the five to ten years in the pond.
As early as the 1970s nuclear plants began to run out of pond space and adopted cask storage as an interim solution. The legally mandated national storage facility doesn’t exist. Although we spent over $15 billion studying and preparing Yucca Mountain, Nevada, to be such; it was declared unusable in 2015.
I’ve worked with Sandia and Oak Ridge developing and installing a system allowing the IAEA to remotely monitor the spent fuel canning and storage process at Argentina’s CANDU reactor at Embalse. This included working on top of the silos where the containers are stored. A silo is roughly 30′ tall and 20′ in diameter.
Nuclear garbage is what’s to be stored here. We can’t make our household and industrial garbage disappear by ignoring. talking, or writing about it. If you’ve read about, seen, or smelled places like New York City or Naples, Italy, during a garbage collector strike; you know it must be dealt with. While nuclear garbage doesn’t smell, it has other dangerous characteristics. WE MUST DEAL WITH IT AND STOP TALKING AND KICKING THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD! Having spent my career in nuclear energy, safeguards, and nonproliferation, I’m well aware of the fear and concern in many countries of using nuclear reactors to produce electricity. I believe it’s both safe and necessary if the world is to reduce use of fossil fuels and deal with climate change.