In March of 2017, Holtec International, a private company that makes nuclear waste storage and transport containers, proposed the construction of an interim storage site for spent nuclear fuel (SNF) in southeast New Mexico, roughly halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs. The proposed facility has the capacity to store all of the SNF currently in the country (about 80,000 tons), with space for waste produced in the future as well. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is currently soliciting public comment on the project until Sept. 22.
Holtec and the NRC are required to hold in-person meetings to solicit public comment on the drafted Environmental Impact Statement for the site. Five of those meetings were supposed to happen this year, at several locations across New Mexico—but the COVID-19 pandemic has made them impossible.
On March 20 all three U.S. representatives for New Mexico along with Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall issued a joint letter to NRC chairman Kristine Svinicki, urging her to “extend the public comment period until the threat of COVID-19 has passed and it is again safe to attend public meetings.”
In a letter in April issued as a response, the NRC extended the public comment period by 90 days and announced plans to substitute the in-person meetings across New Mexico with a series of webinars.
On Aug. 18 Senators Heinrich and Udall returned with another letter, saying that replacing the in-person meetings with webinars was unacceptable. “Virtual meetings have limitations that must also be accounted for, such as technological hurdles and broadband access that some constituents may not be able to overcome, not to mention the direct health and economic impacts of the pandemic and financial crisis that our citizens may be dealing with.”
As of press time, the NRC has not responded to this latest request. They held another webinar last week.
The construction of a new nuclear facility brings up many concerns about the environment, human health and economic repercussions. After the 2014 accident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the same part of the state, where at least 22 workers were exposed to radiation and many more to smoke inhalation, some New Mexicans worry about the addition of another nuclear facility.
“There will be accidents created by Holtec’s proposal. Either at the site or along the transport routes. It’s not a matter of if, but when,” says Leona Morgan, Coordinator at the Nuclear Issues Study Group, an anti-nuclear activist group in New Mexico. Morgan’s group, along with the Sierra Club and several other national anti-nuclear organizations, has filed contentions with the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, a panel of judges within the NRC that “conducts all licensing and other hearings as directed by the Commission,” according to their web page.
“Our fight to legally challenge this is still within the agency itself. It’s a kangaroo court,” says Morgan. Her group has boycotted the webinar hearings and has scheduled their own public hearing event online for Sept. 16 on their Facebook page.
The storage facility proposed by Holtec is unlike any existing nuclear waste facility. The proposed site would store spent nuclear fuel rods, the nuclear waste product left over from commercial nuclear power plants, which is the most radioactive substance produced in the country. It’s also only designed to be a temporary storage facility—the license that Holtec is attempting to acquire from the NRC would allow it to operate for 40 years, with the possibility to renew the license twice afterwards for a total of 120 years. As to where the waste goes after that, there’s no consensus. Many people in opposition to the storage facility worry that the unspoken plan is for the site to become de facto permanent, even though the current designs for the site do not account for the long-term safe containment of this highly radioactive waste.
“Given that there is currently no permanent repository for high-level waste in the United States, any interim storage facility will be an indefinite storage facility. Over this time, it is likely that the casks storing SNF and high-level wastes will lose integrity and require repackaging. Any repackaging of SNF and high-level wastes increases the risk of accidents and radiological health risks,” said Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in a June 2019 letter to then Secretary of the Department of Energy Rick Perry and Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Kristine Svinicki, voicing her concerns about the proposed storage site. Holtec’s current licensing application does not include designs for a “fuel pool” where leaking canisters can be safely repackaged.
The nuclear industry has long been economically significant in New Mexico as well, not only in terms of weapons development at Sandia National Labs and Los Alamos, but also in our state’s history of uranium mining. But that economic history is parallel to the health and environmental disasters caused by the industry, such as the 1979 Church Rock uranium mill spill—the largest breach of radioactive material in U.S. history—and the dozens of abandoned and unremediated uranium mines across the state. The negative aspects of the nuclear industry have disproportionately impacted Native American people, particularly Diné communities—which are also less likely to have reliable internet service, making it more difficult for them to participate in the new public comment process.
The governor also mentioned that the proposed site for New Mexico’s newest nuclear storage facility is not only in the Permian Basin, where $2 billion in state revenue from oil and gas leasing was generated in 2018, but also in a hub of New Mexico’s agricultural industry. Any potential accidents in transportation or at the site would be disastrous for both industries.
The Permian Basin, one of the United States’ most prolific sites for the oil and gas industry, has had a major economic resurgence in the last 10 years thanks to the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”—a process of injecting high-pressure water, sand and chemicals into the earth, forcing gas and oil out. It’s reasonable to be concerned about this relatively new process and its effect on the geologic stability of the area.
John Heaton, chairman of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, the New Mexico company that owns the land Holtec plans to purchase and build on, insists seismic issues won’t impact the integrity of the storage site. “The micro-seismic effects from drilling and fracking underneath the site for hydrocarbons that are one to two miles beneath the surface will have no impact on the surface or the project. We look forward to working closely with the oil and gas industry to assure them we in no way impede their oil and gas recovery.”
Nonetheless, health and environmental concerns about Holtec’s proposed site remain.
“One of the things that upsets people like me is that it’s one thing to not pay attention to climate change over the next 120 years, but they’re also not going to consider other things,” says Don Hancock, Nuclear Waste Safety Program Director at the Southwest Research and Information Center. “What happens if you do have [oil and gas] drilling near this spent fuel storage? NRC isn’t considering it, because they don’t think it will happen in the next 40 years. Basically, if it were being considered permanent then they’d have to consider other safety requirements and potential geologic events—but since it’s only 40 years, they don’t have to.”