When it comes to nuclear fuel management, New Mexico has been involved in the fuel cycle from uranium mining (currently inactive) in northwest New Mexico to uranium enrichment fuel manufacturing at URENCO in southeast New Mexico. Our nuclear energy research facilities at the National Laboratories in Los Alamos and Albuquerque have always been at the forefront of nuclear science and technology.
The Smithsonian National Museum of Nuclear Science and History is located in Albuquerque and is worth a visit for the whole family.
New Mexico has a proposal to implement another phase of the nuclear fuel cycle to safely store the unused fuel rods from the existing nuclear power fleet of reactors in the United States. This unused uranium fuel is also referred to as spent nuclear fuel and also considered a waste byproduct of the reactor’s fission cycle. The spent fuel rods contain about 4% radioactive fission products that need to be shielded for approximately 300 years for health and environmental reasons.
For the last 60 years, the unused spent fuel rods have been safely stored at the nuclear power plant sites in both wet pool storage and dry cast storage while the fission products continue to decay. No other industry is this careful with their waste by-products, none. As the nuclear power plants begin to age, they can either have their license extended from their original 40 years, now up to 80 years, depending on their overall physical condition and profitability. If they are not re-licensed, they have to be decommissioned.
Fortunately, the federal government required all the nuclear power utility companies to set aside a fund for decommissioning. One of the fund’s purpose was to relocate the site’s stored nuclear fuel to a more secure and safe central location until the fuel could be permanently buried or reused as a new fuel for the next generation of fast reactors. The fast reactor development cycle is now within 10 years by several private companies in the U.S. and other nations around the world.
The proposed nuclear fuel storage facility planned for New Mexico has a very important role as a storage and potential recycle conversion facility for the future nuclear power industry.