In California, spent nuclear fuel is piling up outside reactors. Across the globe, Sweden's nuclear industry has learned to work with communities to devise a permanent disposal solution, something with which the United States is still grappling.
However in New Mexico, a private company operates the world's only functioning geologic repository for one kind of nuclear waste.
On a parched plain in the southeastern corner of New Mexico, Bobby St. John demonstrates the many layers of protection inside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). St. John and more than 700 other employees work here at WIPP, for a subsidiary of the San Francisco-based URS Corporation.
"We're gettin' ready to enter a radiological control area," St. John says, stepping into an airlock. "In the event something were to happen to this -- exterior of this building -- the air would rush into the building instead of out, which allows us to ensure that nothing gets out to the environment."
Inside "waste bays" like this one, workers remove the waste from transport containers.
"They look like giant thermoses. And that's exactly what it is," St. John explains. "It's a nuclear regulatory commission-certified type B package."
Every week, about 30 truckloads arrive at WIPP for entombment. After removing the waste packages from their transport casks, workers place it in stainless steel canisters, and lower it 2,000 feet to its final home.
At the bottom is an enormous salt bed, left behind after the Permian Sea dried up 230 million years ago. Since then, the salt has remained virtually undisturbed by groundwater or seismic activity.
"Within the next few hundred years, the salt will literally encapsulate the waste, and it's gone," Bobby St. John says. "And that was the whole idea behind the salt, is that it's permanent disposal."
While this is a permanent solution for some nuclear material, it does not accept any kind of high-level waste, such as spent fuel from nuclear power plants. The site was intended only for intermediate material called ?transuranic? waste, that comes from government labs and places doing nuclear R&D for the Pentagon.
It may seem like the criteria for the ideal nuclear waste disposal site is the most boring place on earth, but St. John says with a laugh, "Boring is good in this business."
And the last decade has indeed been pretty boring: WIPP has been taking in low-level radioactive waste since 1999 without a major incident. Once they took in some of the wrong kind of waste and had to return it, but that was it.
Today, the facility is about 40 percent full. At public meetings between the federal Department of Energy and local residents, there's talk of expanding the site, as well as the mission.
Community Largely Supportive
Ray Richardson and his wife run the aptly-named No-Whiner Diner, located on Highway 62, the main road through Carlsbad. From the window booths here, one can see the truckloads of waste headed for the disposal facility.
"They're talking about bringing high-level waste in," Richardson says. "There's always the environmental aspect of that, and the fear of that. I don't know that it's justified."
Justified or not, fears do linger.
For example, Henrietta Chavez, who works in a downtown Carlsbad fabric store, harbors a kind of free-floating anxiety over the radiation somehow escaping its underground tomb.
"My main concern is the water," she explains. "I just don't think it's safe enough. I know they keep an eye on 'em and stuff -- but how do we know? And another thing is they tell us it's low-grade. We don't know if it's low-grade or not."
Some statewide environmental groups have long been wary of WIPP and oppose any kind of expansion. But from the first atomic bomb test in 1945 to the high-profile government labs that still operate here, many New Mexicans seem to embrace their nuclear legacy.
Ray Richardson is one of the many who does. "I mean WIPP's beneficial in a lot of ways; financially, educationally, it provides a service that needs to be provided," he says.
Farok Sharif, who runs the WIPP operation for federal contractor URS Corporation, says, "It's not just a matter of us bringing in good jobs. You know, we are part of this community."
Involving the local community in decisions about the project's future has been crucial.
"Credibility that we, that the promises that we made, we kept," Sharif continues. "Transparency, making sure that everything is wide open. We have nothing to hide."
So far, that formula's worked for Ray Richardson.
"And now the question is, if they expand it into weapons-grade uranium or spent fuel rods, they will have to come back to this town again and explain how they're gonna transport it, how they're gonna store it..." he says. "It has to go somewhere. Somebody has to bite the bullet."
And somebody has to decide what to do with it. A White House Commission is scheduled to issue recommendations this Friday for the high-level commercial waste stacking up at nuclear power plants, including four sites in California. But a permanent solution for how and where to dispose of it is still likely to be decades off.