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U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel Policy: Road to Nowhere [Part II: Project Salt Vault]

By Robert Peltier -- July 9, 2010

Part I in this series reviewed the history of nuclear waste storage policy in the United States. This post reviews Project Salt Vault, an early attempt to solve the dilemma of storing spent nuclear fuel.   Part III will cover the history of Yucca Mountain.

Project Salt Vault

The primary objective of Project Salt Vault was to demonstrate the safety and feasibility of handling and storing high level nuclear waste (HLW) solids from power reactors in salt formations. The engineering and scientific objectives were to:

· Demonstrate waste-handling equipment and techniques required to handle packages containing HLW solids from the point of production to the disposal location.

· Determine the stability of salt formations under the combined effects of heat and radiation (approximately 4,000,000 curies of radioactive material, yielding up to 109 rads).

· Collect information on creep and plastic flow of salt needed for the design of an actual disposal facility.

· Monitor the site for radiolytic chemical reactions, if such should occur.

The demonstration site selected was the inactive Lyons, Kansas mine of the Carey Salt Co. The 1,020-foot deep salt mine had operated from 1890 to 1948 and had been kept open for possible future use. Preparations for the demonstration began in 1963, and the first radioactive material was placed in the mine in November 1965. The tests involved the emplacement of actual irradiated fuel assemblies from the Engineering Test Reactor (ETR) in Idaho. The ETR assemblies were chosen because of their availability on a dependable schedule and their relatively high radioactivity levels.

Seven sealed canisters containing 14 spent nuclear fuel (SNF) assemblies were transported by truck in a lead-shielded carrier to the site. The canisters were lowered into the mine one at a time through a 19-inch-diameter charging shaft. In the mine, the canisters entered a lead-shielded vessel on a trailer pulled by a diesel-powered tractor called the “waste transporter.” The hauler delivered the canisters, one at a time, to an array of lined holes drilled in the floor. The waste transporter was also used to recover and transfer the canisters at the end of the tests.

The canisters were placed in a ring-like arrangement in the floor of the mine (Figure 1). Electrical heaters — used to compensate for lower heat release rates of the fuel elements compared with actual waste — were attached to the lower liners to raise temperatures in the central pillar in order to obtain information on its in-situ structural response to heat.

Salt Vault

1. In-situ testing of nuclear wastes was conducted in the mid-1960s at the Carey salt mine. Source: Kansas Geological Survey

The program plan called for replacing the waste every six months to maximize the radiation dose to the surrounding salt formations. At the end of each phase, the spent fuel was retrieved and returned to Idaho.

The results showed that the structural properties of salt were not significantly altered by the high radiation levels. Useful information was gathered with respect to thermal stresses, migration of brine-filled cavities, and salt-flow characteristics as a function of temperature. For example, the demonstration revealed that inclusions of moisture, or brine, in the salt beds had a tendency to migrate up a thermal gradient toward a heat source placed in the salt. Quantities of brine were measured as migrating and interacting with the deposited waste canisters.

All the predictions of thermal and radiation effects based upon theoretical modeling and laboratory experiments were confirmed by the in-situ demonstration. Despite the rather high radiation levels and high thermal loading, no measurable radiolytic or excessive structural effects in the salt were observed. In addition, operations at Lyons, both at the surface and in the mine, were carried out without the use of hot cells (shielded nuclear radiation containment chambers used to protect workers). Maximum personnel recorded dose during any quarter was 200 mrem, principally to the hands of a worker.

The results of the Project Salt Vault demonstration led many in the AEC to believe that the use of bedded salt was satisfactory for the disposal of radioactive wastes. The experimental phase of Project Salt Vault was terminated in June 1967 when the last canister was removed from the mine. The Lyons Mine was then placed on standby on February 1, 1968.

The Beginning of the End

Workers from Project Salt Vault recall that it enjoyed the support of the local community. Four factors contributed to this climate of acceptance:

· The experiment was designed from the beginning to be reversible; that is, once it was completed, all the waste would be completely removed.

· Consultations were held with local groups before the project began.

· Efforts were made by Oak Ridge National Laboratory personnel to conduct the studies in full view of Kansans.

· Once the research started, regular tours were conducted in which the general public could visit the mine.

However, two intervening events forced the AEC to withdraw from the Lyons site. The first was a fire in 1969 at the Rocky Flats facility in Colorado, which produced pits for nuclear weapons. The accident generated a large volume of low-level, plutonium-contaminated debris. Following standard operating procedures, the managers of Rocky Flats sent the waste to the National Reactor Test Station in Idaho for storage. That action outraged Idaho’s political leadership, which saw no reason why their state should become the “dumping ground” for waste created in Colorado. They acted and ultimately extracted a commitment from AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg (1961 – 1971) that all of the waste would be removed from Idaho by 1980. That pledge necessitated the construction of a disposal facility. The second factor, dominating an entire decade, was the growing opposition to nuclear power punctuated by the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

Confronted with the immediate need for a repository, and given the available information at the time, the AEC’s siting strategy was to quickly identify a site for storage of nuclear wastes in a salt dome underlying about 500,000 square miles in portions of 24 states. Most importantly, bedded salt deposits were completely free of circulating groundwater and were isolated from underground aquifers by impermeable shale. Any fractures that might develop would be sealed by plastic deformation and recrystallization of the salt. The regions considered cut down the site options because only salt deposits 200 feet thick and lying within 2,000 feet of the surface were deemed suitable for the first waste repository. The largest areas meeting these criteria lay in central Kansas, although there were two smaller areas in Michigan and one in west central New York. In 1970, the AEC announced that, pending confirmatory tests, the Lyons site was being selected as the first full-scale national repository.

The degree to which the AEC had consulted with state and local officials before this announcement is in dispute. What is clear is the AEC’s decision did not receive the same ringing endorsement as the earlier experimental tests had. Moreover, state and local political opposition to the Lyons site was intense, particularly when technical problems with the site became apparent. The political arm-twisting had just begun.

Political Opposition Begins

A widely held view among leaders of the Kansas Geological Survey was that there was insufficient knowledge about repository design, the heat-flow models were primitive, and there were large gaps in the understanding of waste-rock interactions and rock mechanics. These concerns, among others, were the basis for opposition from U.S. Representative Joe Skubitz, who represented a Kansas district that did not include Lyons, and Governor Robert Docking. What followed was a barrage of criticism, and, despite the agency’s best efforts, protests asserting that the AEC was tramping on state interests took hold in the public mind.

As an example of the political discourse at the time, Skubitz inquired why the Kansas salt fields were selected instead of a site in the Salina Basin, which would have been closer to the operating and planned reprocessing plants in New York, Illinois, and South Carolina. The agency responded by saying the Kansas site possessed geologic characteristics more favorable than those of the salt in the Salina Basin. The AEC furthermore justified the long transport routes to Kansas by suggesting a reprocessing plant would be built in California, thus making the Lyons site centrally located. In retrospect, the AEC was tone deaf when responding to the nontechnical factors, relying on its highly technical justifications for the Lyons site. Furthermore, it is believed that the Kansas salt mine was chosen because of prior local acceptance of Project Salt Vault and because the AEC did not have the resources to investigate other locations, nor did it wish to spend two years studying other sites.

By August 1971, the controversy escalated to the level of involving both Kansas senators, Robert Dole and James Pearson, who sponsored an amendment to the AEC’s authorizing legislation. The amendment prohibited buying land or burying waste materials at Lyons until such time as an independent advisory council, appointed by the president, reported to Congress that the establishment of a repository and burial of waste could be carried out safely. Thus, the AEC’s inability to satisfy concerns of state officials resulted in its losing considerable autonomy in implementing a major policy.

In September 1971, newly discovered technical difficulties would severely threaten the project’s future. Roughly, 20 oil and gas boreholes in the area were found to be impossible to plug, and the unexpected disappearance of water from a nearby solution mining operation raised many questions about the geologic integrity of the salt domes for storing liquid nuclear waste. In February 1972, the AEC withdrew from further operations at the Lyons site, citing technical uncertainties and problems with political and public acceptance.

In the 1980s, Kansas refused to issue a permit for low-level nuclear waste to a new contractor. The shaft was permanently sealed in December 1994. (Though this article does not concern waste from the DOE defense program, it should be noted that transuranic radioactive waste from that program (and from nuclear power generation) has been transported to and stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., since March 1999. That geological repository is in the Permian Salt Basin.)

In Part III we look at the rise and fall of Yucca Mountain and the how dry-cask storage is now used to store spent nuclear fuel.

Portions of this post were first published in POWER magazine and co-authored with Contributing Editor James Hylko.


  1. A Conservative Teacher  

    I can’t wait till you start discussing Yucca Mountain… as I wrote on my blog, Congress passed a law designating Yucca Mountain as the national repository for high level nuclear waste in the United States… and then Obama came along and decreed that it wasn’t going to be. What a lawless and counterproductive sham. Thanks for laying out the long history of this issue- it’s important.


  2. Steve C.  

    This is all so odd. I’m just in awe of how profoundly stupid politicians can be. Instead of having one repository where you can apply all your resources to managing the waste, you have over one hundred pools around the country. Not to mention that reprocessing seems so commonsensical. The French do it!


  3. Richard W. Fulmer  

    Politicians aren’t stupid, they just have different goals. Their main objective is not to manage nuclear waste but to get re-elected.


  4. Ed Reid  


    “I’m shocked, shocked” that you could be so cynical about our elected representatives! 🙂


  5. Jon Boone  

    Surely you’re correct at one level about the overarching desire for reelection, which, as virtually everyone knows, is code for “gaming the system.”

    But I submit this gamesmanship is precisely what many now find contemptible, for it has created a bipartisan dive to the bottom vis a vis public policy. The corollary to this submission is that I think many voters, perhaps most, would welcome political leadership of the “There you go again” quality–leadership that exposes the BS for what it is and encourages honest inquiry about better alternatives than what we now have, which is a vastly wealthy nation littered with political/economic/social detritus.


  6. Rod Adams  

    One aspect of used nuclear fuel handling that needs to be mentioned is the fact that there are plenty of people involved in the political process with huge financial motives for preventing any solutions.

    People who oppose nuclear energy development often use “waste” as a trump card in discussions about future energy choices and dismiss nuclear energy’s proven advantages (abundance, reliability, no air polluting emissions) by stating “we do not know what to do with the waste”.

    Many people forget that not everyone really wants society to toss off its addiction to fossil fuels. They forget about all of those people – some of whom write for Master Resource – that make their living by serving as our pushers. They forget that some interests make a quantity of money on selling fossil fuels that most of us can barely grasp.

    How many of us can really “get” what it means to be a company like ExxonMobil that has a revenue of $340 billion per year with a total employee count of just 80,000 people. As big as that company is, it has just a 3-4% market share of the fossil fuel energy business.

    It boggles my mind – I used to work in a budget analyst role for the US Navy, an organization with more than 650,000 full time employees and several hundred thousand contractors that has an annual budget of just $130 billion or so.


  7. Richard W. Fulmer  

    Mr. Adams,
    MasterResource writers aren’t oil “pushers.” We are pushers of cheap, plentiful energy, because it is cheap, pentiful energy that helps pull people out of poverty. As soon as someone comes up with a source of energy that is cheaper and more plentiful than fossil fuels, we’ll back it. We will not, however, “push” expensive energy because expensive energy leads to poverty and waste.


  8. Pat Slider  

    One man, Mr. Harry (?) Purdy of Lyons, KS led the opposition to storing nuclear waste in the north Lyons salt mine. He owned Purdy’s Jewerly Store. He was a decent man, a bit grumpy, who loved Rice County and did not want the threat of leaked nuclear waste to be a cloud on the county. Mr. Purdy investigated the experiment and notified his elected representatives and fired up the local newspaper to do the same. He was opposed by those who looked forward to increased commerce, a side benefit of the storage. However, most recognized his intellect, research, and diligence and are grateful for his work on the matter. Rice County could have been a midwest Three-mile Island. Although he has been dead at least 20 years, I think he deserves mentioning.


  9. On US Spent Nuclear Fuel & Salt Domes | The Louisiana Sinkhole Bugle  

    […] U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel Policy: Road to Nowhere [Part II: Project Salt Vault] […]


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  11. Jenifer Wolf Williams  

    I am glad to come across this article. The Lyons mines were directly under my parents’ home, and I believe I was the only child to tour the storage site in 1970.

    I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was a connection to my parents’ cancer deaths, especially since my mother’s polycythemia vera myelofibrosis was found to have an environmental cause. At one point, every household on our street included a cancer patient.

    Many thanks for the reference to Mr. Purdy. I remember him, but didn’t realize his role in our community history.


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