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The Department of Energy is conducting a pilot project to solve one of the most intractable energy problems – a solution to a storage site for radioactive nuclear waste. Using salt beds in New Mexico, the project is studying whether or not salt beds provide the answer. DOE is carving out space deep in these salt beds and packing them with boxes and barrels of nuclear waste, according to an article by Matthew Wald of The New York Times.
Known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), the site in the New Mexican desert hopes to make progress on waste storage, which was completely derailed when the Obama administration scrapped the long-term storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The salt beds, according to DOE, could store nuclear waste for millions of years. The waste is placed in the carved out tunnels, and then the salt slowly entombs the waste at a rate of six inches a year. Once encapsulated, it theoretically can be safely stored for “eternity.”
For now, the facility is only storing plutonium, a byproduct of making nuclear weapons. Commercial radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, which is more radioactive, is currently prohibited by law, but officials from WIPP hope to prove that it is geologically possible. The salt is unaffected by nuclear waste, and DOE officials are confident that it can be the long-term solution.
The kicker is that there is some semblance of local support for the project, which would provide an economic boost to a depressed region. To be sure, support is not unanimous, but thus far there isn’t the active opposition from powerful political figures as was the case with Yucca Mountain. Still, there won’t be much movement on the subject in the near-term. Any changes to the WIPP program, including allowing spent fuel storage, would require additional acts of Congress. But, given the early results, the WIPP program offers encouraging signs for the development of long-term storage.
By. Charles Kennedy of Oilprice.com
Charles is a writer for Oilprice.com