Department of Energy Considers Two NM Sites to Test Nuclear Waste Disposal
The project raises concerns of local communities even though no plans of actual nuclear waste disposal are on the table
Out of sight, out of mind
Clean, reliable, non-greenhouse-gas-emitting power – this is how nuclear energy is sometimes described, especially by its enthusiasts and promoters. The United States has been using nuclear power plants for 60 years and today almost 20% of US electricity is generated from nuclear power. The relatively widespread use of this kind of energy means that communities around the country face a serious issue that is becoming more and more pressing as time goes by. The issue is nuclear waste storage. Recently, the United States Department of Energy sparked the controversy again with the plans to use four locations across the US as test sites for a nuclear waste disposal systems. Two of those sites are to be located in New Mexico – one in Nara Visa in Quay County and the other Otero County. The test will consist of drilling two holes – 8.5 and 17 inches in diameter – 16,000 feet deep into the ground. The objective is to ascertain if radioactive waste could be stored in the lower parts of such hole in a method called Deep Borehole Disposal.
Few subjects stir as much public debate and controversy as the topic of nuclear waste disposal. Currently, commercial nuclear waste is stored right where the nuclear energy is produced – at reactor sites. This solution, however, has always been thought of as temporary although it is worth noting that in this case “temporary” came to mean “for at least 25 years and counting”. Indeed, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. The act was drafted to provide a framework for what is called geologic disposal of nuclear waste. The term signifies burying radioactive material from nuclear power plants in deep underground repositories. The stipulation is that such repositories cannot be dug just anywhere – in order to provide a sufficient isolation from potential leaks or general radioactive activity, they must be drilled into solid, crystalline rock that will stay stable for the whole half-life time of the radioactive material. In 1987, after amendments were introduced to the original 1982 act, the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was chosen to be evaluated as a potential geologic repository. Although the location met the standards and requirements, the project encountered considerable social and political opposition which led to its eventual abandonment in 2009. The Office of Nuclear Energy informs on its website that efforts are being made to apply a consent-based approach to the creation of nuclear waste sites which implies that local communities cooperate with the authorities in managing nuclear waste.
To secure federal funding, the two energy development companies that are currently responsible for the construction of the experimental waste site project in Nara Visa – DOSECC Exploration Services LLC and Enercon Federal Services, Inc – have to do more than show that they posses the technology necessary to realize the project. Currently, they have been approved to realize Phase 1 of the project – which mostly entails gaining public approval and engagement. A failure to do so has already caused the previous bidder for the project, Batelle, a nonprofit research and development organization based in Columbus, OH, to withdraw from the enterprise.
Batelle encountered staunch opposition to the project but it may arguably be said that they made some mistakes in the way they handled the issue. For example, local authorities first read about the project in the local newspapers rather than being informed about it personally. It seems that DOSECC and Enercon are making efforts not to make the same mistake. For example, last October, Peter Mast, the president of Enercon held a series of meetings with the Nara Visa residents to present the case for the boreholes. At the meetings, he highlighted economic benefits of the project, mentioning that it could create 20 temporary jobs and as many as 12 permanent ones. Although these numbers may not seem like a lot, for a community as small as Nara Visa, where fewer than 100 residents live, the project may actually have a visible economic impact. Mast also mentioned that for the time of the construction of the site, workers will need additional services such as accommodation and laundry services which would create even more job opportunities. According to the estimates of the companies responsible for the project and the US Department of Energy, the construction of the repository could give the local economy a $40-million boost. Moreover, Dennis Nielson, the president of DOSECC, stressed that the borehole will only be treated as a test site and that neither of the companies is planning to put actual nuclear waste in the repository.
An uncertain future
The residents, however, are not entirely convinced that this scenario is completely out of question. Concerns are being raised that if the project produces satisfactory results, there are no guarantees that the federal government will not want to use the borehole to store radioactive material. For example, the pro tempore mayor of Tucumcari, a small town located in the same county as Nara Visa, expressed a concern that “it is always a possibility that they [the government] could use this site for nuclear waste”. Indeed, while the current contract with DOSECC and Enercon states that neither of the two boreholes that the companies propose to drill would be used to store nuclear waste, it is unclear what would happen if Nara Visa were found to be the only suitable site for boreholes in the US. Theoretically, the Department of Energy could order more drillings to be done and convert a test site into an actual nuclear repository site.
Considering concerns and outright opposition from the local community, the future of the Deep Borehole Disposal in New Mexico remains uncertain. At a national level, the problem is and will remain a controversial one. Nevertheless, it is also a problem that will not go away – nuclear waste eventually will have to be stored in a permanent place. At this time, such a permanent solution would require having the approval and support of communities living in the vicinity of the storage site. Thus, even if the New Mexico borehole project fails, it is possible that it will help develop methods and practices of cooperation with local communities that will help to establish a permanent storage site in the future.