The idea of storing radioactive nuclear waste inside a hollowed-out salt cavern might look good on paper. The concept is to carve out the insides of the caverns, deep underground, then carefully move in the waste. Over time, the logic goes, the salt will move in and insulate the containers for thousands of generations.
“The whole game is to engineer something that can contain those contaminants on the order of tens of thousands of years,” Tim Judson, the executive director of the Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS), told Truthout. NIRS is intended to be a national information and networking center for citizens and environmental activists concerned about nuclear power, radioactive waste, radiation and sustainable energy issues, according to Judson.
Salt-cavern storage was the plan for the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), the world’s third-deepest geological repository, constructed and licensed to permanently dispose of radioactive waste for 10,000 years. The repository sits approximately 26 miles east of the town of Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico.
Since shipments began in 1999, more than 80,000 cubic meters and 11,000 shipments of waste have been transferred to WIPP.
But at the moment, there are several ongoing critical problems at the site, which has been closed and unable to accept shipments of radioactive waste ever since a fire and radiation release in February. Dozens of barrels of radioactive waste from Los Alamos National Lab, like the one that caused the radiation leak, now pose an “imminent” or “substantial” threat to public health and the environment.
Yet, these problems could pale in comparison to what might happen at the site if an earthquake were to strike, or if the protective salt layer were compromised by nearby drilling for oil and gas, and in particular, hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking.
Fracking is a technique used in obtaining gas and petroleum, in which water is mixed with sand and toxic chemicals, and the mixture is injected at extremely high pressure into a wellbore to create small fractures.
Thus, one would logically deduce that fracking should never be done anywhere near WIPP. However, it is being done there, and experts expect it to increase.
“In the last three years, a dozen fracking wells have become operational within five miles of the site [WIPP],” Don Hancock, the director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at Southwest Research and Information Center, told Truthout.
Given that it is already well known that fracking causes earthquakes, it is clear that the nuclear waste storage site is now in danger of having its structural integrity compromised.
“These are the major concerns,” Hancock warned. “There is clearly a possibility that the deep fracking can affect the stability, but even more likely is fracking liquids nearing or entering the waste beds – which would be a very bad thing.”
“They Are Drilling All Around It”
Truthout spoke with a state of New Mexico employee who is intimately familiar with the permitting and drilling processes related to WIPP. The employee spoke on condition of strict anonymity, due to a fear of reprisals from the pro-drilling administration of radical right-wing Tea Party Governor Susana Martinez.
“There is so much drilling coming online down there now,” the employee explained. “They are going back into existing fields and drilling horizontally, and the WIPP site is located right in the middle of all these fields, so they are drilling all around it.”
The source said that the oil and gas companies who are drilling and fracking near WIPP “have permission to go under the [WIPP] boundary to target the reservoirs there, so it appears as though most of the wells are horizontal, and that is a concern.”
According to the employee, “The fracking fluids they are injecting are very unstable, and if it continues like this there could be big problems…. There was a 5.2 [earthquake] in West Texas from fracking, and that’s a big concern given the sensitivity of the WIPP site and what the possible consequences could be.”
The WIPP site was chosen in the mid-1970s because there was no oil or gas found within several miles of it. The thought at the time was that the area was outside the active oil and gas production area.
“One of the original criteria for siting is there shouldn’t even be a borehole let alone active drilling within two miles of the site,” Hancock explained. “But that ended up being reduced to a mile.”
As time went on, oil and gas drilling started getting closer and closer to the site, so it started being something people paid attention to.
“We became concerned, because inadvertently drilling through nuclear waste containers on your way to find gas has generally had been thought of being a bad idea,” Hancock added sarcastically.
Since the federal government “doesn’t really control fracking” according to Hancock – and since most of the land around the site is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management and the state of New Mexico, whose governor is extremely pro-oil and gas and anti-environment – the area has been allowed to be treated just like any other in New Mexico, when it comes to being exploited for oil and gas.