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With Waste Dump Closed, Where To Put Nuclear Leftovers?


In New Mexico, the nation's only nuclear waste dump is closed. It's been several weeks since radioactive material was detected in the air at the site. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, the incident is shaping up to be yet another setback in the quest to find a home for America's nuclear waste.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: If you live near a nuclear power plant - and a lot of you do - then you're living near something else: nuclear waste. Right now, pretty much every plant in the country stores its own used nuclear fuel. It's been there for decades but it's going to be radioactive for a lot longer. And that leads to an important question.

JIM CONCA: Do you want to just leave the waste where it is or do you want to actually put it in a place that will be secure for 200 million years?

BRUMFIEL: That's Jim Conca, a geologist at Columbia Basin College in Washington state. The government's original plan for old nuclear fuel called for putting it into Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But in 2009, after decades of legal delays and environmental concerns, President Obama killed the project. Suddenly, the nuclear industry got interested in another site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Right now, WIPP, as it's called, holds a lot of radioactive junk left over from the Cold War - contaminated clothing and tools. But Conca thinks it could hold pretty much anything.

CONCA: It is the best place to put nuclear waste of any sort from any source.

BRUMFIEL: WIPP has a series of tunnels and rooms deep underground cut from an ancient bed of salt left over from when New Mexico was an ocean.

CONCA: The nice thing about massive salt like this - I mean, it is massive, 10,000-square-miles, 2,000-feet thick - it's solid, it's molecularly tight. So it takes about a billion years for water to move an inch.

BRUMFIEL: In other words, Conca thinks it would be perfect or storing old nuclear fuel from the power plants. But WIPP has plenty of opponents. Don Hancock is with the Southwest Research Information Center in Albuquerque, an environmental group. He says WIPP isn't a good solution. For one thing, it's completely surrounded by people drilling for oil and gas. He says all this interest in WIPP actually comes down to desperation. Nuclear plants want to get rid of their waste and so they look at it and say...

DON HANCOCK: Oh, there's only one hole in the ground with nuclear waste in it, so maybe we ought to see what else we can put there.

BRUMFIEL: Then on February 14th came a major accident. It's believed that a chunk of salt fell from the ceiling onto a drum or drums. Radioactive dust came out. Some of that dust made it to the surface and at least 13 workers on the site inhaled it. Nobody has been back into WIPP since.

HANCOCK: I would hope that the idea that this facility could handle more waste has now pretty much been totally debunked.

BRUMFIEL: Jim Conca, who supports the WIPP expansion, still thinks it could work. The data he's seen so far shows the accident was contained underground. WIPP's safety systems worked.

CONCA: I mean, no one would get hurt. No one is contaminated enough to get cancer in the future. There's no environmental effect.

BRUMFIEL: Still, the accident will have to be cleaned up, new safety procedures will have to be developed, regulators will have to review the changes.

CONCA: My feeling is that it'll take about a year to get WIPP operational again.

BRUMFIEL: The U.S. government still says deep underground is the best place to store nuclear waste from power plants. But after this accident, it's just less clear than ever where underground to put it. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.