Note: this article appears in the print edition as a sidebar to the news story titled "Idaho's new crop: nuclear hot potatoes."
The continuing question of where to bury nuclear waste has high stakes for the West.
Federal officials have focused on permanent burial of the waste in two locations: Yucca Mountain, Nev., for commercial nuclear waste from nuclear power plants, and Carlsbad, N.M., for bomb-production waste contaminated with plutonium.
Both sites have been plagued by problems. Opponents of Yucca Mountain say the geology and seismic activity of the area might allow groundwater to seep into the storage site, causing a nuclear explosion that could shower fallout on nearby Las Vegas (HCN, 4/3/95). The opening date has been pushed back to 2010, and with proposed budget cuts, even supporters give it only a 50 percent chance of ever becoming a reality.
Water problems have plagued New Mexico's Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) as well. Until recently, brine leaked into its underground salt chambers. Critics also say drilling in the oil-rich area in the distant future might cause radioactive releases.
Politicians have sought to overcome delays with legislation. Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M., added a rider to the House Energy and Water budget bill that would bypass certification of WIPP by the EPA, moving the opening date from 1998 to 1997. That rider died after failing to make it onto the Senate's budget bill.
Because of the shaky future of Yucca Mountain, many people are looking to above-ground temporary storage as the solution for high-level waste. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Rep. Dan Schaefer, R-Colo., have sponsored legislation that would open a 100-year dump on the Nevada Nuclear Test Site by 1998. Other legislators are pushing DOE facilities in Hanford, Wash., and Savannah River, S.C., as interim burial grounds.
Most environmentalists oppose plans for both permanent and temporary nuclear waste storage. "We know that with every cask that comes into Idaho, the nation is less inclined to deal with the waste problems," says activist Beatrice Brailsford. Her answer: Store it where you make it, at commercial nuclear plants and Navy ports across the country.