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For N.M., Nuclear Waste May Be Too Hot To Handle

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For N.M., Nuclear Waste May Be Too Hot To Handle

Energy

For N.M., Nuclear Waste May Be Too Hot To Handle

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LYNN NEARY, Host:

And now to New Mexico, where the federal government has been burying nuclear waste in a salt mine near Carlsbad for 11 years. It's the country's only permanent, underground nuclear dump. But it can handle only a fraction of the waste the government needs to bury. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports in our second story on nuclear waste, some are questioning how much nuclear waste the state should take.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Tourists in New Mexico know the art galleries of Santa Fe and the ski slopes of Taos, but not the state's truly unique attraction: WIPP. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is a series of caverns mined out of underground salt beds. The Department of Energy buries so-called transuranic waste there - things like gloves and equipment and chemicals used to make nuclear weapons that got contaminated, mostly with plutonium.

It's dangerous stuff, but fairly easily handled. That's what WIPP was built to take. But the federal government has a lot of other really hot, high-level waste to get rid of, especially spent fuel from reactors. New Mexico legislator John Heaton says, we'll take it.

JOYCE: The geology has been demonstrated that it can actually handle that kind of waste. In fact, we think that WIPP meets all the requirements that would be necessary for a high-level waste repository.

JOYCE: Heaton represents the Carlsbad region. He's seen the town profit from the hundreds of millions of dollars the federal government has spent here to bury transuranic waste. He says expanding WIPP to accept the really hot stuff is not a geological problem.

JOYCE: There's really no other concern except political philosophy.

JOYCE: That's not what Don Hancock believes, however. He's a nuclear analyst with the Southwest Research and Information Center, an environmental group that's monitored WIPP from the start.

M: It's the geology that doesn't permit it, oil and gas fields around pressurized brine underneath.

JOYCE: That's basically salt water underneath the salt beds where the waste is buried.

M: The fact that heat from spent fuel would attract the water, move around, all of those things are no way.

JOYCE: DOE scientists say underground water is too far from WIPP to pose a hazard. But spent fuel isn't like the waste that's in WIPP now. It's very, very hot - hot enough to change even the nature of the salt and rock.

Nuclear analyst Robert Alvarez worked on waste at DOE during the Clinton administration.

M: The amount of heat that this spent fuel gives off is so great that it could actually destabilize the geology, cause the containers to corrode or crack open, which would lead to the migration of waste, perhaps into water supplies.

JOYCE: Both sides in this debate say the geology favors their view. But environmentalist Don Hancock says there's more at issue here than just geology.

M: Spent fuel doesn't show up at any location by immaculate reception. It has to get there. It has to be transported on roads and railroads that go through other places to where people get no benefits whatsoever out of it.

JOYCE: Places like northern New Mexico, where people vote more liberal, more green and more anti-nuclear.

In the southeast, where Carlsbad is, attitudes are different. Ron Curry, who runs the state environment department, grew up in the southeast. He says it's a mining culture that's used to living - and making money - from risky work.

M: One of the things that the southeastern part of the state has done, and they've done well, is that they have tried to develop large community support to make them kind of a nuclear alley.

JOYCE: Curry says people outside the southeast don't see benefits from a nuclear alley, however. They fear that WIPP is the camel's nose under the tent, that their state will become the dump site for all the nation's nuclear trash. Curry says his department won't allow that.

M: We've made it clear that WIPP is WIPP. WIPP is for transuranic waste and nothing else. The state has done its part at this point in time. That's kind of our story, and we're sticking to it.

JOYCE: But the pressure is on to find a permanent waste dump for tens of thousands of tons of the country's hot-to-handle spent fuel. It was supposed to go to Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but President Barack Obama has canceled that project.

Robert Alvarez, who watched the Yucca Mountain project collapse at DOE, says the real problem here might not be geology or local politics at all.

M: What's not there is public trust, and the ability of institutions that have the responsibility for these wastes to garner public trust. I personally believe that DOE is not the right agency to do this.

JOYCE: President Obama has appointed a special commission to come up with a new plan for a dump site. So far, there's no sign that DOE will lose its authority over the nation's nuclear headache.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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