Buried nuclear waste risky, say Stanford experts

Radioactive material from the laboratories that design America’s nuclear weapons will have to be buried and kept away from humans for at least 10 000 years.

The Department of Energy’s long-term plan for dealing with material contaminated with plutonium and heavier elements from the U.S. weapons program is to bury it underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico.

The Energy Department’s plan aims to safeguard nuclear material for the next 10 000 years.

But three Stanford nuclear scientists point out in a new commentary article in the journal Nature that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) was not designed to hold as much plutonium as is now being considered for disposal there.

And, in fact, the site has seen two accidents in recent years.

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“The current regulatory period of 10,000 years is short relative to the 24 100 year half-life of plutonium-239, let alone that of its decay product, uranium-235, which has a half-life of 700 million years,” the researchers wrote.

“We cannot be certain that future inhabitants of the area will even know WIPP is there,” they added.

The waste is stored 2,150 feet below the surface in hundreds of thousands of plastic-lined steel drums in rooms carved out of a 250 million-year-old salt bed.

The repository is at about half of its planned capacity and slated to be sealed in 2033.

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