Public outcry against a proposed plan to build a nuclear waste facility in southeastern New Mexico seemed overwhelming last week as citizens spoke at numerous public meetings held by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission across the state.
Holtec International, a Florida-based “diversified energy technology company,” is known for its work developing and manufacturing technologies and systems for the energy industry. Earlier this year, it applied with the NRC to build a temporary storage facility in Lea County—meant to hold spent nuclear fuel shipped from sites across the country.
This material comes in the form of small fissionable ceramic pellets placed inside zirconium metal tubes and bundled together in “fuel assemblies.” The assemblies are used to power nuclear reactors. When the fuel is spent, the rods are placed in water to cool. The spent fuel—which is still highly radioactive—will continue to generate heat for decades. After some time in these pools, the rods are moved to dry casks made of steel and concrete. Keeping these casks near reactor sites is risky, however, and Holtec is proposing the storage facility in New Mexico as a way to transport the dangerous materials away from these sites.
The proposed “HI-STORE” Consolidated Interim Storage Facility (CIS) would be located on 1,000 acres of land owned by the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance in Lea County, between Carlsbad and Hobbs. The $2.4 billion facility would hold around 500 canisters of spent uranium fuel—8,680 metric tons—from more than 70 US nuclear reactors. If the plan is approved, future expansion of the site could increase the number of canisters to 10,000—storing approximately 120,000 metric tons of nuclear waste. Holtec has asked the NRC for an initial 40-year license, with an opportunity to extend the license to 120 years.
The facility is meant to serve as a temporary storage space for the waste, however a permanent home has yet to be found. The only site being considered for permanent storage of the spent waste is the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada, which is not currently operational. Efforts by the Trump administration to restart the licensing process for the facility are at a standstill after funding requests included in the annual defense authorization bill were rejected by the US Senate last week.
The lack of a federal plan for permanent storage of the spent waste has raised concerns among opponents of Holtec's plan regarding the likelihood that the new facility, meant to serve as an interim storage site, could become the waste's lasting home. At a number of public meetings arranged by the NRC, residents and environmental advocacy groups spoke against the project, citing safety issues that have occurred at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and fears of contamination near sites of cultural significance.
Also of concern is the transportation method of the high-level radioactive materials. The spent waste will be shipped via train to Lea County from nuclear sites across the nation. Last month a meeting of the state Legislature’s interim Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee in Hobbs heard testimonies from railroad employee union representatives who said the state’s rail lines are unable to safely transport the materials, and the railroad employees aren't properly trained to handle nuclear waste. It is unclear exactly which rail corridors are expected to be used for the waste's transportation, as it's not mentioned in the proposal.
Last month in an interview with KRWG, Doña Ana County Democratic Sen. Jeff Steinborn—chair of the state Legislature's Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, which is responsible for overseeing Holtec's proposal—said a list of 57 questions concerning the safety of the proposed plan submitted to Governor Susana Martinez and 5 state agencies has been ignored for the most part. “The lack of response from [the Martinez] Administration to even the most basic questions raise the troubling prospect that they have not done any analysis on the potential negative impact of bringing the country’s highest level nuclear waste into New Mexico.”
Among the questions asked were whether New Mexico has the infrastructure needed to handle the volume of shipments that would be coming into the state. In the case of an accident, the letter asked if emergency preparedness procedures are in place. Concerns were raised about the possible effect on the state's gas and oil industry, since the site is located in the Permian Basin, one of the most productive oil fields in the country and a critical area for oil companies operating in the state.
The only response Steinborn said he'd received was from the New Mexico Environment Department, saying they would investigate the matter in the future.
Local governments have also acted in opposition to the facility's proposal. Resolutions against the transportation of waste have passed in Bernalillo County, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Lake Arthur and Jal.
But Holtec President Kris Singh said the facility will create new jobs and bolster the state's economy in a letter to Steinborn. He also wrote that those who stood in opposition to the plan “without credible science-based facts regarding its licensing and operation will be guilty of subverting New Mexico’s economic growth and undermining our national security.”
John Heaton, chair of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, reportedly told the Carlsbad Current Argus that the site would have no interaction with nearby water tables or aquifers, and railcars can be modified to hold more weight. Representatives of Holtec have argued that the casks used to transport spent fuel rods are safe, and have been operating in the US for years without incident. They've said heavy NRC regulations have mitigated any dangers involved, and fears of accidents are unfounded.
The NRC is currently performing a study in preparation of an environmental impact statement regarding Holtec's license request. If approved, Holtec could receive their license by 2020 with a projected opening for the facility in 2021 or 2022.