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The risk of talking to people who are much more knowledgeable on a particular topic is it may require a re-evaluation of long-held beliefs.
Dr. James Conca accurately describes himself as one of the 10 experts in the world on nuclear waste disposal. He was director of the Environmental Monitoring and Research Center for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad from 2004 to 2010. WIPP is the nation’s only deep geologic site for nuclear waste storage.
Conca has also been an affiliate scientist with Los Alamos since 2004 and was a senior scientist on special assignment to the Hanford Site in Washington state, where a leak of nuclear waste into the soil and water was discovered in 2017. He is currently the senior scientist at a Washington state-based firm that specializes in the remediation of soil and water following exposure to radiological, heavy metal and organic contaminants.
I grew up with a fear of nuclear power that stemmed from the arms race with the Soviet Union in the 1960s. I was in college in 1979 when some of my favorite musicians organized No Nukes: The Muse Concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future. The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island that same year solidified a mistrust that, for the most part, still remains.
Conca, a presenter for the Academy for Learning in Retirement in October and recent guest on the community radio show I co-host each Wednesday morning, sees things differently. More to the point, he believes WIPP is far better suited than Yucca Mountain to handle our nation’s nuclear waste, and the proposed Holtec nuclear waste facility near Carlsbad makes sense for collection and temporary storage.
Conca described nuclear waste as no big deal. “We know what to do with it. We know where to put it. We know how much it’s going to cost. And, it’s already paid for if we put it in the right rock,” he said
The “right rock” was determined in 1957 when the National Academy of Sciences first looked into deep geologic disposal and found that massive underground salt deposits were the best option. The primary salt formation at WIPP is about 2,000 feet thick, beginning 850 feet below the surface.
I had a chance to tour WIPP several years ago, and came away convinced it was as safe as we can get. It takes a billion years for water to move one inch through that rock, Conca said.
Yucca Mountain will never be the right rock, Conca said. It was chosen based on politics, back when Harry Reid was a junior senator.
“I worked on that for 25 years, trying to make a lousy rock work,” he said.
WIPP includes 16 square miles, Conca said. When it completes its original mission of storing transuranic waste, only one square mile will be used.
If WIPP is the best location for permanent storage, it may make sense to gather and temporarily store casks that are now spread out at nuclear plants around the country at the proposed Holtec site.
There are still legitimate concerns that need to be addressed. But we should be making these decisions based on science, not politics.