February 6, 2013

The Feb. 4 editorial “Where will the nuclear waste go?” mused on the need for a solution to the “not-in-my-back-yard nightmare” of the nation’s unresolved nuclear waste supply. As it turns out, the nation already has one in southeastern New Mexico.

Several years ago, the New Mexico cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, along with Eddy and Lea counties, formed the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance. We, with popular community support, want to host an interim storage site in an empty, geologically stable area about halfway between the two cities. Why? Well, it turns out that the cure for NIMBY is a positive experience.

For the past 14 years, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has operated in the area as a repository for intermediate-level nuclear waste. The plant has worked so well and operated so safely that the area’s residents are very open-minded about the possibility of additional nuclear facilities. We’ll sleep well at night knowing that our region’s resources will be put to good use for the benefit of the nation.

John Heaton, Carlsbad, N.M.

The writer is chairman of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance board.

The nuclear waste editorial was silent about an unavoidable aspect of centralized interim storage for high-level radioactive waste: transport. Shipping irradiated nuclear fuel by road, rail or waterway is risky. A full-scale program would quickly surpass the number of such shipments over the past half-century.

Such transport is the weakest link of the uranium fuel chain. Severe accidents, such as high-speed crashes, fires of long duration and high temperature, or prolonged underwater submersion, could breach shipping containers, releasing hazardous radioactivity. Containers are not designed to withstand attacks, such as by anti-tank weapons, which could take place in metro areas. Hundreds of nuclear waste rail cars that originate at reactors in Maryland and Virginia could pass through Washington.

This could be all for naught. Depending on where permanent disposal is located, waste might get shipped back near where it came from.

Any transfer would take decades, meaning storage risks at reactors would persist. Hardened on-site storage must be implemented, whether or not centralized storage is opened.

Kevin Kamps, Takoma Park

The writer is a radioactive waste specialist for Beyond Nuclear.

The Post editorial expressed skepticism that communities would “volunteer to host waste facilities, particularly the permanent repository, no matter the economic benefits.” To consent to such a facility, a community must have confidence in the integrity of the contract into which it is entering.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act was such a statutory framework, passed by a bipartisan Congress, and set forth a process for developing two repositories. Today, any prospective host community will have to confront the reality that the U.S. government failed to implement its own law.

Absent an executive branch willing to carry out a nuclear waste law passed by Congress and overseen by a truly independent safety regulator, how can any community have confidence that this, or any other statutorily mandated path to a repository disposal solution, will be realized?

Janet P. Kotra, Herndon

The writer is a former senior project manager in the Division of Spent Fuel Alternative Strategies at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

On one hand, the current nuclear waste situation is bad, since, as The Post editorial noted, the federal government is 15 years past the legal deadline to take possession of spent nuclear fuel and is wasting money by not dealing efficiently with the problem.

On the other hand, the spent nuclear fuel is quite stable, and the older fuel requires only minimal air-cooling to remain intact. Long-term research continues, but it appears that dry concrete and steel containers can safely work for many decades.

Unfortunately, the political problem is the thorny one, and one hopes that a staged approach will result in an accepted repository.

Mohammad Modarres, College Park

The writer is a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Maryland.