Pink Salt, Seven-Foot-Thick Walls, and a State-of-the-Art Centrifuge Plant: A Trip to America’s Nuclear Corridor

NTI’s Martin Rioux-Lefebvre and Andrew Newman, senior program officers in the Materials Security and Minimization program, travelled to Texas and New Mexico to visit three nuclear fuel cycle sites as part of their work with NTI’s Developing Spent Fuel Strategies project. Led by Newman, co-author of Decision-making and Radioactive Waste Disposal, the project seeks to strengthen global approaches to nuclear materials management.

Here is their account of the trip:

As part of our research into new solutions for spent fuel waste management, we were fortunate in early February to visit three of the six facilities that make up what is often called the ‘nuclear corridor’ in Southeast New Mexico and West Texas: the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and the URENCO USA uranium enrichment facility in New Mexico and Waste Control Specialists (WCS) in Texas. (The three we didn’t get to are Sandia and Los Alamos National Labs in New Mexico and the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly/disassembly facility in Texas). 

Our trip started at WIPP, near Carlsbad, NM. WIPP is the Department of Energy’s repository for disposal of ‘transuranic waste’ from defense programs. Transuranic waste consists of material contaminated with radioactive elements heavier than uranium and not found in nature, such as plutonium and americium. The waste is lowered 2,150 feet underground into a huge pink salt formation formed about 250 million years ago. Once the deep storage rooms and walls are filled with containers, the salt is allowed to slowly and progressively cave in from all sides and seal the waste permanently.

After riding down in a mining elevator for about five minutes, we spent more than two hours almost half-mile underground with the site operators to discuss the mine’s design, engineering features, and safety and emergency response procedures.

We learned about past safety incidents, how the team at WIPP has carefully addressed those problems, and the disposal schedule moving forward.

The next morning, we crossed the state line into Texas and toured the WCS site in Andrews County, a remote and arid corner of the state’s vast oil patch. WCS is a privately owned company that treats, stores, and disposes of low-level radioactive waste from commercial generators (power plants, hospitals, etc.) in one landfill and the low-level waste from the Department of Energy in a separate but identical landfill. 

Buried in dense, red bed clay and bolstered by several additional man-made layers of protection against radionuclide leakage, including a seven foot thick steel-reinforced concrete liner, the waste is isolated from the surrounding environment until it no longer poses any safety or security risk. WCS has also submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build an interim storage facility for spent fuel from nuclear power plants.

After visiting the WCS site we drove a mile back into New Mexico to the URENCO USA uranium enrichment facility. Senior managers gave us a presentation on URENCO’s corporate structure, licensing history in the United States and business model, followed by a two-hour tour of the facility. It was a unique opportunity to see, and better understand, the functioning of a state-of-the-art centrifuge plant.

Each site is an engineering marvel, and each plays an indispensable role in the safe and secure functioning of the entire U.S. nuclear enterprise, from defense and energy to medicine and science. 

April 5, 2017
Martin Rioux-Lefebvre
Martin Rioux-Lefebvre

Andrew Newman, PhD
Andrew Newman, PhD

Senior Director for Nuclear Fuel Cycle Activities

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