Where to Store the Nation’s Nuclear Waste? No One Has the Answer, Exactly. But It’s Probably Not “In a High-Risk Seismic Zone.”

It seems obvious that “when assessing the aptitude of a site to receive a deep nuclear-waste repository, seismic activity should be taken into account.” (IAEA). At the moment, the only repository of this kind in the U.S. is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the nation’s main nuclear weapons waste storage site. WIPP lies a half mile underground in a salt formation in southeastern New Mexico. Additional nuclear waste storage facilities are planned to be built nearby, along the border between southeastern New Mexico and west Texas, where risks of quakes caused by oil and gas fracking operations in the area are rising.

“The occurrence of smaller earthquakes began to increase in 2017, when oil and gas boomed in the region, up to about three per day recently. In 2021, records show the region was on track for more than 1,200 earthquakes with magnitudes of 1 to 4.” KRQE

In New Mexico in July, a 4.0 temblor shook the southeast corner of the state. Meanwhile, just over the border on the Texas side, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a high-level waste facility, and Holtec International is trying to put their share of the nation’s commercial nuclear waste there as well, on the New Mexico side.. Holtec, with support from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wants to build a nuclear waste storage facility for up to 100,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods 12 miles north of WIPP, a plan opposed by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and others in state government.

 “All of these nuclear sites are surrounded by brine injection wells, the likely cause of the increased seismicity in the basin.” Source NM
Oil production and wastewater injection is increasing in the Permian Basin, the name of the large sedimentary basin located in western Texas and southeastern New Mexico that contains the Mid-Continent Oil Field province, and isn’t slowing down soon. “Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. have both made the Permian a key focus for next year…Chevron plans to spend $3 billion in the basin next year, 50% higher than this year’s budget and about a fifth of its global total.” Midland Reporter Telegram

More from Source New Mexico:

“No seismic safety guidelines

New Mexico doesn’t have specific seismic safety guidelines for oil and gas wells. And some aren’t as concerned about the increasing quakes.

“We don’t study induced seismicity at the research center,” says Dr. Robert Balch, the director of the Petroleum Recovery Research Center at New Mexico Tech. The center studies techniques to increase oil and natural gas production in the state and transfer that technology to industry.

“Mainly because it’s not a very big issue like it is in Oklahoma,” he says. That state is the nation’s poster child for induced seismicity from injection wells.

In November 2011, a 5.6-magnitude quake hit Prague, 45 miles due east of Oklahoma City, severely damaging several houses, toppling chimneys and collapsing the turret on a building at a local college. For years the state government there fought the idea that the quakes were tied to the oil and gas industry. But in 2014 a report for the USGS National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program that was published in Science linked injection wells to that quake and others in Oklahoma. That quake swarm peaked in 2015.

For a long time, the existence of induced seismicity was controversial. Induced earthquakes look pretty much the same as naturally occurring earthquakes.

– Dr. Mairi Litherland, manager Seismological Observatory at New Mexico Tech

But she says that when injection decreased in Oklahoma, the size and number of earthquakes decreased as well.

Meanwhile, in the Permian Basin, oil production and wastewater injection is increasing, and is set to increase further.

Balch says that the geology underlying the Permian Basin is dramatically different from what’s found in Oklahoma, and he believes it poses a lower risk for large quakes. Also, he says that in Oklahoma, water was injected much closer to the underlying bedrock than in New Mexico, and that can create a higher risk of larger quakes.

“I guess I’m not very concerned about earthquakes in the Permian,” he says, “but tomorrow if there’s a 9.6 (magnitude quake) I’d have to change my mind, wouldn’t I?”

He also only heard of one instance of an earthquake damaging an oil and gas wellbore. 

“Somebody told me that somebody told them that a well was blocked” after a quake in the 1990s near Eunice, he says. “There’s no real evidence of that in the literature. And I imagine companies would keep that kind of thing to themselves. Someone might blame them for the earthquake, right?”

 It appears that the only seismic guidelines for oilfield equipment or wells offered by the American Petroleum Institute, the industry guideline leader, are for offshore drilling rigs and for onshore storage tanks.

New Mexico also does not have seismic guidelines for operations.

New Mexico Oil Conservation Division Director Sandoval says that her office hasn’t seen any seismically induced well issues, but she also thinks that there haven’t yet been quakes large enough to damage wells.

OCD inspects injection wells “just as much as other oil and gas wells, if not more,” she says. And rules implemented three years ago increased spacing between injection wells to one and a half miles, “so that they’re not spaced right next to each other like some other states have done.”

She says that her office does have the authority to shut down wells in an emergency, but “we have not had to use emergency order authority, at least that I’m aware of.”

She also says that operators are reusing more produced water in their operations, cutting down on the amount being disposed of by reinjection. “And the more that that can occur, you know, I think the better overall.”

More earthquakes coming

Over the last several years, Litherland’s group has installed more — and more sensitive — seismometers across New Mexico to give them more accurate location information on the small quakes that were recently recorded.

“Because of the WIPP facility we want to be, you know, particularly cautious,” she says. “And it’s not always easy to figure out what the best thing to do is.”

But she does know one thing for sure: “If we continue injecting more and more fluid into these same locations that are experiencing earthquakes now, we would most likely expect to continue to see earthquakes,” she says.”

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