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Why the Permian Basin may not be the best place to store nuclear waste.




The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) evaluated a proposal by Holtec International to build a storage site for radioactive nuclear waste in New Mexico, and decided that a license could be issued.

Last Monday, the New Mexico attorney general filed a lawsuit against the Norwegian Refugee Council aiming to block the project because it would endanger the environment, residents and neighboring industries such as agriculture and oil and gas production.

Earthquakes are one of the risks assessed by the Norwegian Refugee Council. But earthquakes are often associated with oil and gas production, and the proposed Holtec site is close to thousands of new oil and gas wells in the Delaware Basin. This deserves a closer look.

Figure 1. Earthquakes greater than 3 degrees in the Permian Basin from January 2018 through March 2021 … [+] (39 months).


Earthquakes in the Permian Basin.

The earthquake swarm is located south of Carlsbad about 60 miles from the proposed Holtec site, as shown by a blue star in Figure 1. Holtec provided a map that showed the main geological structures (faults, etc.) near the edge of the basin. The swarm in Figure 1 appears to be part Too dense structures.

The swarm contains possibly 100 earthquakes with strength greater than 3. The largest earthquakes were 5.0 on March 26, 2020 and 4.5 on the Richter scale on March 17, 2021.

Only one earthquake greater than 3 degrees occurred at this site in 3 years prior to January 1, 2019. So this swarm started somewhat suddenly in January 2019. A swarm like this may result from drilling new disposal wells or high pressure collision of a sewage column with a line Crack after spreading slowly over time.

The swarm of earthquakes that appear somewhat suddenly adds to the uncertainty about the safety of the proposed nuclear waste storage facility in an oil and gas field, especially a giant field like the prolific Delaware Basin in New Mexico.

Induced earthquakes.

So-called induced earthquakes like these caused serious anxiety in Oklahoma starting in 2009 and peaking in 2015 when 887 earthquakes occurred in one year (six times as many as in California).

It is caused by the spread of injected wastewater at the bottom of the drain wells.

Previous earthquakes were felt and studied in the unconventional Dagger Draw oil field in New Mexico. This is a carbonate area on the left edge of the Delaware Basin but in New Mexico it is not Texas (Fig.3).

Once again, the injection of wastewater into deep formations near granite rocks was the cause of the earthquakes. In Dagger, draw a liquid plume from several disposal wells spread sideways about 10 miles before intersecting a deep fault line that caused earthquakes.

With this background, we take a look at the stakes that Holtec examined in their proposal to NRC.

Holtec proposed nuclear waste repository.

The proposed warehouse for spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors is called the Consolidated Interim Storage Facility (CISF). The word “temporary” refers to a plan that is temporary to be used only until a permanent warehouse is established at an as yet unspecified location in the United States.

How much nuclear waste? A nuclear reactor typically produces about 2,000 tons of radioactive uranium waste annually. In all, about 83,000 tons of spent fuel are stored in temporary locations in more than 30 US states. The first phase of the proposed project will transport and store in New Mexico about one-tenth of this amount.

The first stage of nuclear storage will consist of 500 units (Figure 2) each containing a cylindrical tray in the ground and packed with nuclear material from spent uranium.

Figure 2. Artistic design of CISF containing about 500 units, with the box shown in the inset. … [+] Source: US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.


However, additional phases can be built on 10,000 units. This raises an apparent concern: Will the CISF in New Mexico end up becoming the permanent storage site for US nuclear waste?

The site is located in southeast New Mexico, midway between Carlsbad and Hobbes. Thousands of oil wells are located in the vicinity (Figure 3).

What are the risks?

The NRC review process examined the proposal and decided that a license could be issued. The proposal included a comprehensive safety analysis and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

The risks assessed included radioactive contamination by (1) transportation of storage drums by truck and rail. Each box is welded with steel coated with steel and concrete barrel for transportation. But truck accidents can happen, especially since highways are blocked due to an increase in the number of regular trailers.

Other risks at the CISF site include (2) storage container failure, (3) potential sewer openings, (4) Playa lakes and aquifer contamination, (5) earthquake damage.

Danger of water produced in the Delaware Basin.

It appears that this has not been specifically examined, but disposal of the produced water can and often cause earthquakes.

There are thousands of oil and gas wells in the Delaware Basin (Figure 3). It has been reported that for every barrel of oil there are 4 barrels of brine being produced (a different observer reported a ratio of 5–10). It was 10 in Oklahoma when earthquake swarms started there.

The basin, part of New Mexico, has produced about 1 million barrels per day each of the last three years, so this would yield at least 4 million barrels per day (barrels of water per day) for each of those three years. That’s a lot of water to get rid of.

Figure 3. The wells drilled in the Wolfcamp Formation (left) and the Bone Spring Formation (right). The star is CISF … [+] Site. The rectangle is the earthquake swarm.


Ditching wells is the cheapest way to get rid of the produced water. In Delaware, oil production has increased more than 4 times since 2009, and thus wastewater disposal has increased in coordination.

Wastewater injection can lead to unstable subsurface shifts and rapid shifts in induced earthquakes (Fig.1).

The landscape is gradually changing due to the recycling of produced water – as an alternative to disposal wells. According to the same report, five new water recycling plants will be operational by 2022, to complement 90 smaller recycling facilities built since 2015.

Earthquake damage risk.

Earthquakes often occur in basement rock that lies deeper than the oil and gas area, but earthquake faults can occur at any level (shallow or deep) and can sometimes be several miles away from disposal wells ( Link dated June 18, 2015).

So, is there a risk of a large earthquake that could damage the hot radioactive material packages and allow them to leak from the CISF storage site?

For comparison, Oklahoma’s three largest earthquakes – two with magnitudes greater than 5 – caused massive damage to roof buildings.

The following indicates that it is difficult to rule out a future earthquake with a magnitude greater than 5 that could reach the proposed nuclear storage site in Figure 3: (1) the continued disposal of water produced in Delaware (with a higher water / oil ratio over the half of the ratio) In Oklahoma), (2) the uncertain timing and location of the earthquake swarm in Figures 1, 3 that appeared in the last two years, and (3) a 5 magnitude earthquake in that last swarm.

Earthquake safety analysis at the CISF site.

Potential earthquake damage to the CISF site was assessed by Holtec. The evaluation classifies earthquakes as being caused by movements in the Earth’s mantle. This formulation does not specify earthquakes induced by oil and gas processes, which occur in the crust and not the mantle.

It is unclear whether earthquakes in the crust of magnitudes of 5 or more (as occurred in the Delaware Basin) were considered in the safety analysis of the CISF site.

The conclusion of the CISF evaluation is that “a design basis earthquake will not affect the safe operation of HI-TRAC CS.”

A deeper look.

A deeper look at the safety analysis document states:

It was a prime earthquake activity site 200 miles southeast of the CISF site. This “is assumed to be the result of a build-up of fluid pressure from the fluid injection.” In other words, earthquakes resulting from oil and gas wastewater discharges.

This site should be in the Midland Basin, near the cities of Midland and Odessa (Figure 1). Safety analysis, and earthquake predictions, appear to have been made by Holtec prior to drilling and fracturing thousands of shale oil wells in the Delaware Basin adjacent to the CISF site (Fig.3). In fact, an earthquake probability graph is dated 2009.

One takeaway is that oil and gas operations that trigger earthquakes below may not be the ideal neighbor to the nuclear waste storage sites at the top – at least in the Permian desert in New Mexico.

EiaMaps: Oil and Gas Exploration, Resources and Production – Energy Information Administration Nrc UsgsSearch Earthquakes Catalog.

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