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Fears grow for safety of 'champagne' nuclear dump

Fears grow for safety of 'champagne' nuclear dump

作者:倪窿胸  时间:2019-03-04 02:20:01  人气:

CONTROVERSY over the safety of a new underground storage site for radioactive and chemical waste could force the US to shut down part of a nuclear weapons complex this autumn. There is a fear that anybody drilling into the dump in future centuries could be doused in radioactive brine spurting to the surface like uncorked champagne. The waste dump at the centre of the row, called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), has been built in an underground salt formation near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Environmental regulations have prevented it from opening. The 55-gallon drums stored there, 655 metres below the surface, will contain a mixture of toxic chemicals and transuranic elements such as plutonium. The waste emits little radiation, but remains hazardous for thousands of years. When waste is entombed in WIPP, the underground vault will be sealed, and the salt is supposed slowly to surround and seal the waste. Several unexpected problems have delayed WIPP’s opening, however. More brine was found seeping through the salt layer than scientists had expected. In a geological formation below WIPP, geologists found underground lakes of brine under high pressure. A group of scientists at the University of New Mexico estimates that brine seeping into WIPP could turn the waste into a pressurised slurry of radioactive and toxic waste. If it were ever punctured by drilling, it could spurt to the surface. The Department of Energy in the US has rejected these criticisms, and promises to open WIPP by September. Last week, however, the Secretary of Energy announced that no waste containing toxic chemicals will be stored in WIPP until the Environmental Protection Agency gives its permission. That could take many months. Other studies will be needed to show whether WIPP complies with the EPA’s standards for radioactive waste. But the energy department plans to carry out those studies while it begins to fill WIPP with drums of waste contaminated with plutonium. The state of Texas and a coalition of environmental groups have threatened legal action to stop WIPP opening. According to the opponents, the energy department’s proposed underground tests have no scientific justification. ‘We think that this is just a ruse to get that waste underground,’ said Caroline Petti of the Southwest Research and Information Center, an environmental group. ‘They are on a very tight political deadline.’ According to scientists at the University of New Mexico, underground tests will yield data that cannot be verified. They prefer controlled laboratory experiments and computer simulations because such tests would predict more accurately what will happen decades after the site is sealed. The plutonium waste will come from a vast nuclear weapons plant at Rocky Flats in Colorado, where plutonium is shaped into nuclear warheads. State health authorities in Colorado say that they will order the plant to close if any more waste accumulates there. Some of the waste has been stored temporarily at a store in Idaho. But the governor there has announced that his state will not accept any more shipments of nuclear waste after September. If no permanent storage site is available to replace Idaho,