What can something happening in New Mexico have to do with what’s happening here on the Central Coast?
The generation that remembers the atomic bombs dropped on two Japanese cities in 1945 that ended the war in the Pacific probably also remembers that scientists and government officials had already begun worrying about what to do with radioactive materials related to U.S. nuclear weapons research.
Bomb-making was huge following the end of World War II, including bombs of the nuclear variety. Much of the research that led to the start of the nuclear-weapons age was done atop a mountain ridge in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and in those times, the radioactive junk such as work clothes, was simply trucked off the Los Alamos National Laboratory research village and dumped in local canyons, a fact that did not become widely known for more than 40 years.
Clearly, dumping radioactive material into the wilds was not an acceptable method of disposal, so government officials decided a proper dump was needed. A depository was dug deep into the southeastern New Mexico desert.
WIPP is currently this nation’s only permanent underground repository licensed to take low-level radioactive waste generated by nuclear weapons programs. There are a few other commercial facilities in the U.S. that accept hot waste, but none involves burying the waste so deep.
The desert depository has been operating for two decades, and has taken in more than 12,300 shipments of radioactive material, mostly in drums, boxes or other containers. The waste is placed in rooms carved out of a salt layer. Some of the worst stuff is handled remotely, stuffed into holes bored into walls. Once the rooms are full, they are sealed.
For many people, that region of southeastern New Mexico is now literally and figuratively a wasteland, one with an uncertain future.
What does that have to do with us? The question we should be asking is, what, exactly is the plan for storing the nuclear waste material from operations at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant?
Once PG&E and government agencies finally decide when and how to decommission the Diablo facility, something has to be done with the 2,000 or so tons of nuclear waste, which is now held in dry-cask storage, in half-inch-thick, stainless steel canisters at the Avila Beach site. There are fault lines spidering underground there, just as there are in most areas of California.
The majority of the nation’s spent commercial nuclear waste is stored where it is generated, at 80 sites in 35 states, including four in California. Some nuclear power plant waste will decay into a harmless state in hours, while other materials can take up to 25,000 years to reach safe levels. It all depends on what type of waste it is.
In other words, there really is no solution to the problem of storing nuclear fuel waste. The government and science community’s best minds are working on the problem, as more of America’s nuclear plants close their doors.
We spent several hours scouring the internet, looking for clues, and we essentially came up empty, which is about what those great minds are doing. As for the leftovers at Diablo Canyon, the waste could just remain buried onsite, but that seems illogical, given the geological instability of the region.
Every time we write on this subject we get responses from readers. Rather than telling us how important nuclear power generation is, please tell us where the leftovers can be stored.
** This editorial has been updated to correct information about the storage of nuclear waste.