Ten-year-old radioactive waste is currently being debated about by New Mexico officials. Photo via Getty Images

Federal officials gathered Tuesday in southern New Mexico to mark the 25th anniversary of the nation’s only underground repository for radioactive waste resulting from decades of nuclear research and bomb making.

Carved out of an ancient salt formation about half a mile (800 meters) deep, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad has taken in around 13,850 shipments from more than a dozen national laboratories and other sites since 1999.

The anniversary comes as New Mexico raises concerns about the federal government’s plans for repackaging and shipping to WIPP a collection of drums filled with the same kind of materials that prompted a radiation release at the repository in 2014.

That mishap contaminated parts of the underground facility and forced an expensive, nearly three-year closure. It also delayed the federal government’s multibillion-dollar cleanup program and prompted policy changes at labs and other sites across the U.S.

Meanwhile, dozens of boxes containing drums of nuclear waste that were packed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory to be stored at WIPP were rerouted to Texas, where they've remained ever since at an above-ground holding site.

After years of pressure from Texas environmental regulators, the U.S. Department of Energy announced last year that it would begin looking at ways to treat the waste so it could be safely transported and disposed of at WIPP.

But the New Mexico Environment Department is demanding more safety information, raising numerous concerns in letters to federal officials and the contractor that operates the New Mexico repository.

“Parking it in the desert of West Texas for 10 years and shipping it back does not constitute treatment,” New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney told The Associated Press in an interview. “So that’s my most substantive issue — that time does not treat hazardous waste. Treatment treats hazardous waste.”

The 2014 radiation release was caused by improper packaging of waste at Los Alamos. Investigators determined that a runaway chemical reaction inside one drum resulted from the mixing of nitrate salts with organic kitty litter that was meant to keep the interior of the drum dry.

Kenney said there was an understanding following the breach that drums containing the same materials had the potential to react. He questioned how that risk could have changed since the character and composition of the waste remains the same.

Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque were contracted by the DOE to study the issue. They published a report in November stating that the federal government's plan to repackage the waste with an insulating layer of air-filled glass micro-bubbles would offer “additional thermal protection."

The study also noted that ongoing monitoring suggests that the temperature of the drums is decreasing, indicating that the waste is becoming more stable.

DOE officials did not immediately answer questions about whether other methods were considered for changing the composition of the waste, or what guarantees the agency might offer for ensuring another thermal reaction doesn't happen inside one of the drums.

The timetable for moving the waste also wasn't immediately clear, as the plan would need approval from state and federal regulators.

Kenney said some of the state's concerns could have been addressed had the federal government consulted with New Mexico regulators before announcing its plans. The state in its letters pointed to requirements under the repository's permit and federal laws for handling radioactive and hazardous wastes.

Don Hancock, with the Albuquerque-based watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center, said shipments of the untreated waste also might not comply with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's certification for the containers that are used.

“This is a classic case of waste arriving somewhere and then being stranded — 10 years in the case of this waste,” Hancock said. “That’s a lesson for Texas, New Mexico, and any other state to be sure that waste is safe to ship before it’s allowed to be shipped.”

Radioactive waste is an obstacle to nuclear energy adoption potential. This research team from the University of Houston has discovered a potential solution. Photo via uh.edu

Houston research team discovers new application for crystals in nuclear energy

cleaning up nuclear energy

Researchers at the University of Houston have unlocked a new way to use crystals to safely dispose of radioactive waste.

The team of UH researchers published a paper in Cell Reports Physical Science this month detailing their discovery of how to use molecular crystals to capture large quantities of iodine, one of the most common products of radioactive fission, which is used to create nuclear energy.

According to a statement from UH, these molecular crystals are based on cyclotetrabenzil hydrazones. Ognjen Miljanic, professor of chemistry and author of the paper, and his team have created the organic molecules containing only carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which create ring-like crystals with eight smaller offshoots, earning them the nickname "The Octopus."

The discovery was made by Alexandra Robles, the first author of the study and a former doctoral student in Miljanic’s lab.

The crystals have an uptake capacity similar to that of porous metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) and covalent organic frameworks (COFs), which traditionally have been considered the “pinnacle of iodine capture materials," according to UH. They allow iodine to be moved from one area to another, are reusable and can be produced using commercially available chemicals for about $1 per gram in an academic lab.

“They are quite easy to make and can be produced at a large scale from relatively inexpensive materials without any special protective atmosphere,” Miljanic said in a statement.

The team also believes the crystals can be used to capture additional elements like carbon dioxide.

“This is a type of simple molecule that can do all sorts of different things depending on how we integrate it with the rest of any given system,” Miljanic continued. “So, we’re pursuing all those applications as well.”

Next up, Miljanic is looking to find a partner that will help the team explore practical applications and commercial aspects.

UH has been making net-zero news lately. A team of students from UH placed in the top three teams in a national competition for the Department of Energy earlier this summer. The college also shared details about its forthcoming innovation hub, which will house UH's Energy Transition Institute, as well as other centers and programs.

Joseph Powell, founding director of UH's Energy Transition Institute, sat down with EnergyCapitalHTX last week to talk about UH's vision for the organization.

Ognjen Miljanic is a University of Houston professor of chemistry and author of the paper. Photo via UH.edu

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3 Houston sustainability startups score prizes at Rice University pitch competition

seeing green

A group of Rice University student-founded companies shared $100,000 of cash prizes at an annual startup competition — and three of those winning companies are focused on sustainable solutions.

Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship's H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, hosted by Rice earlier this month, named its winners for 2024. HEXASpec, a company that's created a new material to improve heat management for the semiconductor industry, won the top prize and $50,000 cash.

Founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program, HEXASpec is improving efficiency and sustainability within the semiconductor industry, which usually consumes millions of gallons of water used to cool data centers. According to Rice's news release, HEXASpec's "next-generation chip packaging offer 20 times higher thermal conductivity and improved protection performance, cooling the chips faster and reducing the operational surface temperature."

A few other sustainability-focused startups won prizes, too. CoFlux Purification, a company that has a technology that breaks down PFAS using a novel absorbent for chemical-free water, won second place and $25,000, as well as the Audience Choice Award, which came with an additional $2,000.

Solidec, a company that's working on a platform to produce chemicals from captured carbon, and HEXASpec won Outstanding Achievement in Climate Solutions Prizes, which came with $1,000.

The NRLC, open to Rice students, is Lilie's hallmark event. Last year's winner was fashion tech startup, Goldie.

“We are the home of everything entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialization for the entire Rice student, faculty and alumni communities,” Kyle Judah, executive director at Lilie, says in a news release. “We’re a place for you to immerse yourself in a problem you care about, to experiment, to try and fail and keep trying and trying and trying again amongst a community of fellow rebels, coloring outside the lines of convention."

This year, the competition started with 100 student venture teams before being whittled down to the final five at the championship. The program is supported by Lilie’s mentor team, Frank Liu and the Liu Family Foundation, Rice Business, Rice’s Office of Innovation, and other donors

“The heart and soul of what we’re doing to really take it to the next level with entrepreneurship here at Rice is this fantastic team,” Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business, adds. “And they’re doing an outstanding job every year, reaching further, bringing in more students. My understanding is we had more than 100 teams submit applications. It’s an extraordinarily high number. It tells you a lot about what we have at Rice and what this team has been cooking and making happen here at Rice for a long, long time.”


This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

ExxonMobil's $60B acquisition gets FTC clearance — with one condition

M&A moves

ExxonMobil's $60 billion deal to buy Pioneer Natural Resources on Thursday received clearance from the Federal Trade Commission, but the former CEO of Pioneer was barred from joining the new company's board of directors.

The FTC said Thursday that Scott Sheffield, who founded Pioneer in 1997, colluded with OPEC and OPEC+ to potentially raise crude oil prices. Sheffield retired from the company in 2016, but he returned as president and CEO in 2019, served as CEO from 2021 to 2023, and continues to serve on the board. Since Jan. 1, he has served as special adviser to the company’s chief executive.

“Through public statements, text messages, in-person meetings, WhatsApp conversations and other communications while at Pioneer, Sheffield sought to align oil production across the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico with OPEC+,” according to the FTC. It proposed a consent order that Exxon won't appoint any Pioneer employee, with a few exceptions, to its board.

Dallas-based Pioneer said in a statement it disagreed with the allegations but would not impede closing of the merger, which was announced in October 2023.

“Sheffield and Pioneer believe that the FTC’s complaint reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. and global oil markets and misreads the nature and intent of Mr. Sheffield’s actions,” the company said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said it was “disappointing that FTC is making the same mistake they made 25 years ago when I warned about the Exxon and Mobil merger in 1999.”

Schumer and 22 other Democratic senators had urged the FTC to investigate the deal and a separate merger between Chevron and Hess, saying they could lead to higher prices, hurt competition and force families to pay more at the pump.

The deal with Pioneer vastly expands Exxon’s presence in the Permian Basin, a huge oilfield that straddles the border between Texas and New Mexico. Pioneer’s more than 850,000 net acres in the Midland Basin will be combined with Exxon’s 570,000 net acres in the Delaware and Midland Basin, nearly contiguous fields that will allow the combined company to trim costs.