Nuclear waste — Texas may not be the solution

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Sixty-two years after its first commercial nuclear plant began operations, the U.S. is still grappling with what to do about nuclear waste. As high-level nuclear waste continues to pile up in 80 sites across the country, the future of low-carbon nuclear energy and the path to net-zero hinge on finding a technologically, politically, socially and environmentally acceptable solution. 

With storage at reactor sites running low and many of these sites at risk from climate change-related sea level rise, the imperative to address nuclear waste is urgent. The latest bid has put Texas in the crosshairs. Nu

Unfortunately, the ideal course of action is not straightforward and may not lie in Texas. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) recent recommendation to license an interim storage facility in Andrews, Texas, has evoked misguided discussions around safety and public health concerns. At the same time, critical issues such as seismic activity and the impacts of climate change have been overlooked by the NRC and Interim Storage Partners (ISP), the private company operating the site. Any decisions must be backed by science, broad bipartisanship and public support, and be geared toward a permanent solution. 

We will need a geologic storage system to safely contain the waste for hundreds of thousands of years; however, anti-nuclear sentiment has blocked efforts to complete a repository under Yucca Mountain. With no plans for a new permanent repository and growing liabilities from the current piecemeal storage, the NRC has approved ISP’s plans to accommodate 40,000 tons of waste from 36 decommissioned nuclear sites, potentially saving the government billions of dollars.

However, environmental groups, oil and gas companies, agricultural unions and many Texas policymakers want to delay the project, citing public safety concerns, impact on the oil and gas industry and restricted public participation in the decision amidst the pandemic. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) weighed in through recent letters to President Trump and to the NRC.

In these letters, Abbott undermines the well-established safety of nuclear waste casks used for transportation and storage and says hosting nuclear waste near the Permian Basin would make it a “uniquely provocative target” for terrorists. On the contrary, the casks are robustly designed and highly resistant to impact. If a leak were to occur, the airborne effects would be limited to a square mile of the storage facility. In fact, our recent study (currently under peer review) demonstrates that the annual probabilistic risk cost associated with a release of radioactive material from an act of terrorism is a mere $5,000.

Abbott also claims nuclear waste transportation poses threats to public health and the Texas economy, despite the fact that a cask has never failed in over 40 years of high-level waste shipments. Indeed, our study demonstrates the probabilistic risk cost associated with a release of radioactive material from a train or truck accident is a matter of pennies, as accidents are rare and significant damage to the cask is even less likely.

Abbott is right, however, to express concern about the company’s application. ISP assumes a permanent repository will be operational within the next 60 years. Despite the $43 billion Nuclear Waste Fund, many fear an interim facility will consume funding intended for a permanent solution while weakening any sense of urgency.

Additionally, the sharp increase in seismic activity in West Texas since 2009 isn’t mentioned in the license application. Although most earthquakes have been below a 4.0 magnitude, the growing frequency indicates a significant earthquake is possible. Strong correlations between seismic activity and increased oil and gas drilling, fluid injection and the draining of the Ogallala Aquifer cast doubts on the project’s safety.

Unfortunately, neither waiting for a permanent repository nor the interim storage facility in West Texas are ideal. There is, however, a third option. Deep boreholes drilled miles underground at isolated sites nationwide may be a better solution. Each would contain relatively low volumes of waste stored in damage-resistant casks to mitigate public fear of a catastrophic nuclear release, and these boreholes can be flexibly located to avoid regions with high seismic activity, economic import or climate concerns. Unfortunately, there is limited research into the safety of borehole disposal.

Regardless, it is clear we need to act soon, knowing we can safely handle, transport and store the waste. The permanent and safe storage solution will only be achieved through broad bipartisan and public support.

Ramanan Krishnamoorti is a chemical engineer and chief energy officer at University of Houston. Aparajita Datta and Adam Mallette are graduate students at University of Houston who contributed to this piece. 

Tags Climate change Donald Trump environmental advocates Greg Abbott Interim Storage Partners Nuclear Regulatory Commission nuclear storage nuclear waste nuclear waste dump nuclear waste site Ogallala Aquifer sea level rise Toxic waste

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