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US DOE delays (abandons?) giant waste projects

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(November 19, 1993) After the expenditure of billions of dollars and years of engineering effort, the US Department of Energy (DOE) has shelved its attempt to use the underground salt caverns near Carlsbad, New Mexico as a repository for approximately 10,000 drums of plutonium-contaminated wastes.

(402.3916) WISE Amsterdam - Future opening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) will be delayed at least until 1998 and quite possibly permanently.

The project has long been plagued with technical problems. Hundred-ton slabs of salt have fallen off the ceilings of the caverns, and water has penetrated some of the storage rooms. A very large surface ventilating facility would be needed to exhaust billions of cubic meters of potentially explosive gases generated underground.

The postponement is particularly a victory for the Southwest Research and Information Center, which has maintained a broad opposition movement against the project for many years.

The wastes destined to go to WIPP from the US weapons program are currently stored at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (INEL) near Pocatello. Over the years, INEL has accumulated huge waste burdens from naval reactors and civilian power reactors. Now the facility will be feeling additional pressure from another postponement - namely, the funding for a Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) facility for commercial reactor spent fuel. As provided in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendments of 1987, however, the MRS strategy has always retained a fallback option in which DOE will accept reactor spent fuel at one of the weapons facilities. The agency has mentioned INEL a number of times as its choice of locations to begin surface cask storage of some of the 30,000 tonnes of spent fuel presently awaiting offsite disposal at US reactors.

Yet another potential MRS site being considered is Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, according to the Honolulu Advertiser on Sept. 8. In general, the US government is known to be considering the growing inventory of recently closed military bases as nuclear waste sites of all kinds.

Another abandoned megaproject making recent news is the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC), a 110-kilometer diameter underground raceway for protons that has been under construction near Dallas, Texas. Estimated to cost $11 billion when finished, the project would have been heavily dependent on Japanese funding that has not come forward. So far, $2 billion has been poured into the project, and little of that will be salvaged. Some of the superconducting magnets from the SSC may be sold to the new CERN project under way in Switzerland, but the tunnels that have been dug for the SSC will also have to be backfilled at additional cost to the program, even as a workforce of 2100, including a number of former Soviet scientists, are being laid off.


  • Nuclear Monitor (US), 8 Nov. 1993
  • Christian Science Monitor (US), 5-11 Nov.
  • Pacific News Bulletin (Australia), Oct. 1993

Contacts: Southwest Research & Information Center, P0 Box 4524, Albuquerque NM 87106, USA; tel: + 1-505-262-1862.
Snake River Alliance, Box 1731, Boise ID 83701, USA; tel: + 1-208-344-9161;
Superconductor Accountability Network, P0 Box 654, Waxahatchie TX 75165, tel. 214-937-7100.