Geologic Repositories for Radioactive Waste

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The United States has sought for years to establish permanent storage facilities for HLW and TRU. These wastes have historically been kept in temporary storage at nuclear power plants and DOE facilities around the country. Scientists have focused on the use of geological repositories (storage facilities constructed deep underground) for permanent waste disposal. The ideal location for these repositories is in ancient geological formations that are relatively dry and not subject to earthquakes or other stresses.

Engineers have designed barrier systems that combine multiple physical barriers with chemical controls to provide a high level of long-term containment for radio active waste. For example, radioactive waste can be chemically treated for long-term storage and placed into steel drums. The drums would be placed in a concrete container. Many of these drum-filled concrete containers, surrounded with special chemically treated backfill material, would be placed in a larger concrete container deep in the ground. The rock surrounding this large concrete container would have low groundwater flow. The multiple barriers, chemical conditions, and geologic conditions under which the wastes are stored ensure that the wastes dissolve slowly and pose little danger to the groundwater.

In the United States the government is focusing on two locations for geologic repositories: the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico for transuranic (defense) waste and Nevada's Yucca Mountain for nuclear power plant waste.

the waste isolation pilot plant. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) became the world's first deep depository for nuclear waste when it received its first shipment on March 26, 1999. The large facility is located in a desert region near Carlsbad, New Mexico. It was designed for permanent storage of the nation's trans-uranic waste. WIPP is 655 meters (1,248 feet) below the surface in the salt beds of the Salado Formation. The layout is depicted in Figure 8.12.

As of June 1, 2005, the EPA states that approximately 28,000 cubic meters (990,000 cubic feet) of TRU waste had been deposited at the WIPP facility. The EPA estimates that nearly 110,000 cubic meters (3.9 million cubic feet) of TRU waste in temporary storage at DOE sites around the country is destined for disposal at WIPP. The total amount of TRU waste that can be deposited at WIPP is capped by the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Land Withdrawal Act (1992) at 175,570 cubic meters (6.2 million cubic feet).

As transuranic waste is transported to the WIPP, it is tracked by satellite and moved at night when traffic is light. It can be transported only in good weather and must be routed around major cities.

According to the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), Carlsbad's political and economic leaders pursued the WIPP project during the early 1970s to bring jobs to the area. SRIC is a nonprofit public-interest organization based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. SRIC's Web site says ''federal officials always found support for WIPP in Carlsbad, and usually from the state's United States senators and representatives.'' A public opinion poll conducted of state residents in 2001 by the University of New Mexico's Institute of Public Policy found that 59% of respondents supported keeping the WIPP open, while only 32% thought it should be closed down ( Summer2000_12-2.pdf).

Layout of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico

Layout of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico

Wipp Diagram

s—Panel closure source: "This Diagram Shows Underground Orientation of the WIPP Repository 2,150 Feet Beneath the Surface," in 2005 EPA WIPP Recertification Fact Sheet No. 1, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation, Washington, DC, June 2005, recertification/fsl-recert.pdf (accessed August 4, 2005)

s—Panel closure source: "This Diagram Shows Underground Orientation of the WIPP Repository 2,150 Feet Beneath the Surface," in 2005 EPA WIPP Recertification Fact Sheet No. 1, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation, Washington, DC, June 2005, recertification/fsl-recert.pdf (accessed August 4, 2005)

Every five years the DOE must submit to the EPA a recertification application that documents WIPP's compliance with radioactive waste disposal regulations. DOE submitted the first such application in March 2004. It is available for download at the WIPP Web site (http://

yucca mountain. The centerpiece of the federal government's geologic disposal plan for spent nuclear fuel and other high-level waste is the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. The site is approximately one hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas on federal lands within the Nevada Test Site in Nye County. As shown in Figure 8.13, the mountain is located in a remote desert region.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 required the Secretary of Energy to investigate the site and, if it was suitable, to recommend to the president that the site be established. In February 2002 President George W. Bush received such a recommendation and approved it. Despite opposition from New Mexico's governor, the project was subsequently approved by the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate. In July 2002 President Bush signed the Yucca Mountain resolution into law.

The DOE must next submit a license application to the NRC to receive permission to begin construction. The DOE must satisfactorily demonstrate that the combination of the site and the repository design complies with standards set forth by the EPA for containing radioactivity within the repository. A draft application was completed in 2004 and is expected to be submitted by December 2005. This is a full year beyond the original schedule envisioned by the DOE for document submittal.

Development of the Yucca Mountain repository has been plagued by legal setbacks and political

Hazardous Waste Containment Facilities
An aerial view of Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Yucca Mountain is the proposed site for a major, long-term, nuclear waste storage facility. (U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.)

controversy. Nevada lawmakers have waged a massive and often successful campaign to stop the project from proceeding. Their ultimate goal is to stifle it completely.

During the early 2000s the State of Nevada filed numerous lawsuits seeking to invalidate approval of the Yucca Mountain project. Many of the cases were consolidated and heard in federal court in January 2004. Most of the complaints were dismissed. However, the judge ruled invalid a radiation standard set for the repository by the EPA and instructed the agency to revise the standard in accordance with guidance from the National Academy of Sciences. The EPA expects to issue a proposed new standard in late 2005.

The project suffered another setback in March 2005 when the DOE and U.S. Geological Survey released employee e-mail messages from 1998-2000 suggesting that some project data may have been falsified by project scientists. The data in question relate to water seepage and climate predictions at the site. Nevada lawmakers believe that the e-mails support their claim that the repository will not protect nuclear waste containers from flows of potentially corrosive groundwater. As of July 2005, several federal and state agencies were investigating the e-mail messages and conducting hearings to question the scientists involved.

As part of the licensing effort, the DOE is required to develop a massive electronic database available to the public including all DOE documents supporting the license application. The Licensing Support Network (LSN) is expected to contain millions of pages when it is completed in late 2005. It is accessible at http://

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