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More On Nuclear Waste Storage

February 1, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 5

Jan. 18, page 32: The Science & Technology story about fabricating catalyst particles with fine control over their structure mistakenly abbreviated manganese oxide as MgO. The spikes on the outside of the catalyst particles in question are, in fact, made of manganese oxide, not magnesium oxide.

In his letter to the editor, Willard Hunter (C&EN, Sept. 21, 2015, page 2) first asserts that Sandia National Laboratories’ Mixed Waste Landfill is being improperly treated and then decries New Mexico’s offer to store commercial spent fuel, which would be in steel canisters, as it is now stored beside reactors throughout the nation.

The Sandia waste site he mentions contains low-level nuclear waste and heavy metals, with minor amounts of chlorinated hydrocarbons, mainly tetrachloroethylene (PERC), all buried in unlined pits and trenches. The only detectable amounts of the constituents outside the burial locations themselves are PERC, radon-222, and tritium (with a half-life of 12 years).

Calculations based on estimated solubilities and coefficients of exchange between soil and water showed that only PERC might reach the groundwater in the 1,000-year period evaluated, even without the intended surface cap. Tritium exposure is now several times the regulatory limits for a person camped above the waste and drinking only water adjacent to it. The expected immobility of plutonium, cesium, and the other metals is in agreement with measured experience elsewhere.

Near-surface disposal is considered appropriate for low-level nuclear waste, both in the U.S. and abroad. Hunter’s concerns about this site are unfounded and apparently based on not much knowledge.

His claim that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico is unsuccessful ignores the thousands of drums of plutonium-contaminated waste successfully disposed of there in nearly two decades. The rupture of a single drum of improperly loaded waste in a room not yet sealed off made a mess underground but did not vent a significant amount of radioactivity to the outside. After cleanup below, burial operations can resume.

Hunter’s suggestion of taxing nuclear energy generation for Department of Energy storage expenses shows his ignorance of the fact that the commercial nuclear industry has already put more than $30 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund, for which it has gotten very little in return. If the money for storage or disposal is now used to pay private employees instead of government workers, what is the problem with that?

Why New Mexico? The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future advocated using willing locations. New Mexico and Texas seem willing. Hunter’s implied solution is closing U.S. nuclear power plants.

John Tanner
Idaho Falls, Idaho



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