Salt Beds Offer Potential Solution to Mountain of Nuclear-Waste Problem

RICHLAND, WA - JUNE 30: Jim Geary, facility manager at the Waste Receiving and Processing facility (WARP), looks over a shipment of three TRUPACT transport containers on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation June 30, 2005 near Richland, Washington. Each container holds 14 55-gallon drums of transuranic (TRU) waste that has been processed and will be sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. (National Journal)

Salt beds used to contain nuclear-weapons byproducts in New Mexico could serve as an alternative to the now defunct Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository, The New York Times reports.

New Mexico's Waste Isolation Pilot Project functions as a safe storage facility for plutonium, a material that remains following the construction of nuclear weapons. WIPP is located inside underground salt beds that act as a natural sealant for nuclear byproducts.

The success of the project is attracting attention in light of the political impasse over Yucca Mountain, a site that was designated as a national nuclear-waste repository but remains in limbo following a directive from the Obama administration that it should not be used.

WIPP is not authorized currently to store nuclear-fuel waste, but Congress could overturn this designation. For now, New Mexico Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has not taken a position on whether the facility should be expanded to include nuclear-waste intake.

"We haven't made any decision on any possible future mission for WIPP," said F. David Martin, the Cabinet secretary-designate for the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. "The governor wants to be assured by the science that it could be done safely."