May 29, 2018

With no permanent repository for commercial nuclear waste, NM is in the spotlight

At a public meeting in Albuquerque last week, most people opposed plans for a nuclear waste storage facility.

Over the past two decades, southeastern New Mexico has embraced an industry many other communities throughout the country have rejected. Following more than 20 years of proposals, studies and battles, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) opened near Carlsbad in 1999 to store nuclear weapons waste underground. Then, in 2010, a uranium enrichment plant opened in Eunice. And boosters have floated other ideas, including a nuclear waste reprocessing plant.

Most recently, a group of local politicians and businessmen invited a private company to store high-level waste from commercial nuclear power plants on a thousand acres between Carlsbad and Hobbs.

Related story: New Mexico to decide this week on WIPP permit changes

At a recent hearing before the state legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, former state Rep. John Heaton said the country needs to address the seven decades’ worth of spent nuclear fuel piling up at dozens of power plants around the country—and southeastern New Mexico is well-suited to do that.

That’s why the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, which Heaton chairs, invited Holtec International to use the land owned by the alliance to temporarily store commercial nuclear waste.

After Nevada’s congressional delegation and other state leaders bucked the federal government’s plans for a permanent commercial nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain, the radioactive waste has been left on-site at more than 60 U.S. power plants.

Now, Holtec has applied for a 40-year license to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which writes the requirements the company will have to meet. Headquartered in Florida, Holtec is a global supplier of equipment and systems for the nuclear power industry.

“We think because we have such a good site that it is really somewhat of a moral responsibility for us to relieve the pressure in other parts of the country where they are at significantly higher risk, especially when you think about a place like San Onofre [Nuclear Generating Station in California], right on the coastline in a very seismically active area, and there are others that are equally as risky,” Heaton told legislators.

“We feel the same way about WIPP,” he said. “We’re very nationalistic about WIPP: We’re solving the problem of the Cold War and we feel good about that in the community.”

Not all New Mexicans feel that way. Many legislators on the committee had tough questions for Heaton and Holtec’s Vice President of Engineering, Stefan Anton. And at two public meetings last week, residents overwhelmingly opposed the plan and the license, raising concerns about waste transportation, operations of the facility, New Mexico’s relationship with the nuclear industry and the energy alliance itself.

‘State of the art’ facility deserves consideration

During his presentation to the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, Holtec’s Anton said the first phase of the project would bring 500 canisters to the site, and eventually up to 10,000.

Each canister holds between 20 to 90 assemblies, and each assembly contains several hundred fuel rods. Each fuel rod, he said, measures about 12 feet long and a half-inch in diameter. All told, the plan is to bring 100,000 metric tons of waste, which he said could be stored on about 500 acres.

Waste would be shipped by railroad. And the HI-STORE Consolidated Interim Storage Facility, as it’s called, would employ Holtec’s own fuel storage system—already in widespread use—and store the canisters underground.

Holtec is financing the cost of the licensing process, Anton said, and utilities and power plants would pay the company to remove their waste. “Once the system becomes operational”—if the NRC issues the 40-year license—“the operation of the facility, the cost of the facility, would need to be carried by the current owner, the [electrical utilities responsible for the waste], or the DOE,” he said, referring to the U.S. Department of Energy. “Someone in the end has to pay for the operational costs of the system.”

When legislators questioned who would fund and operate the facility in the long-term, neither Anton nor Heaton could answer that. That’s because at this point, no one knows.

‘Our part of the world’

Legislators had also invited Jimmy Carlile, a West Texas rancher and oil man, to speak at the committee meeting. Carlile is worried about groundwater contamination, and attracting new workers to the region’s oil and gas industry. “What family wants to move to that part of the world, our part of the world,” he asked, “and relocate in close proximity to high-level nuclear waste?”

Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, challenged Carlile and asked how he dealt with applying for oil and gas well permits if he thought contamination was “unacceptable”?

There are “simple and quick” fixes, he said, for oil and gas spills: “This is a 100,000 year potential screw up—that is our concern,” he said. “We’re fearful if something were to happen, this is a long-term problem, and it’s not just going to affect a few people close by.”

Brown remained steadfast in her support of the project, though said she had yet to read the license application.

“I have observed in the years I’ve been following issues, that anything ‘nuclear’ is going to be disliked by some people just because it has the word ‘nuclear’ in it,” she said. “As I have sought to understand the science and the engineering, I have a great deal of admiration for people who work in this industry and make it safe for us, as safe as it can humanly be.”

The Holtec project would be “state of the art,” Brown said, and it deserves consideration—“not just from our perspective as New Mexicans, but as citizens of this country.”

Heaton also fired back at critics, saying taxpayers currently foot the bill for utilities to cover the costs of interim storage at power plants. He called some of the concerns about transportation “absurd” and said Holtec’s storage casks are “virtually indestructible.”

He also pointed to WIPP as an example. “We’ve done 12,000 shipments over 14 million miles on the highway: that’s to the moon and back 28 times and it’s a long way to travel without a significant release,” he said.

For Heaton, it’s also a matter of economics. The project represents a $2.4 billion capital investment in southeastern New Mexico, he said, and would create 240 construction jobs. “There will be 10,000 of these silos built, and that will employ a lot of welders and fabricators in our area,” he said, adding that it could become a “center of excellence” for research. The company is also agreeable to an “incentive package,” Heaton said.

“They’re going to pay us a percentage of their gross [profits],” he said, which would be shared with the rest of the state.

Southeastern New Mexico feeds the state with oil and gas revenues, he said, but that industry fluctuates. WIPP and the uranium enrichment plant have been “great projects” for the area: “We have found what we think is a great niche,” he said. “And this has made a huge difference in stabilizing our economy in our area.”

Blue Ribbon Commission

While speaking before the committee, Anton noted the company did not approach New Mexico—it was invited by the alliance. He also pointed out that the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future recommended combining in a single location the nation’s spent nuclear fuel.

That 2012 report was presented to the U.S. Department of Energy, after two years of meetings. The late U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici was a member of the committee and a long-time advocate for bringing nuclear waste facilities to New Mexico.

The Blue Ribbon Commission’s 180-page report includes a number of recommendations and notes that the “overall record of the U.S. nuclear waste program has been one of broken promises and unmet conditions.”

The commission was confident that record could be reversed.

Although the U.S. failed for decades to find a place to store spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste, they wrote, WIPP should be considered a “significant success story.” The technology exists to safely transport and store the waste, they wrote. But the “core difficulty remains what it has always been:” finding a site for “inherently controversial facilities” and conducting the program in a way that allows states, tribes and communities “to conclude that their interests have been adequately protected and their well-being enhanced—not merely sacrificed or overridden by the interests of the country as a whole.”

Don Hancock, with the Southwest Research and Information Center, also testified at the committee hearing. Among other problems, he pointed out that under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the U.S. Department of Energy lacks the authority to take control of the waste, which Holtec has mentioned as a possible option.

“To do what Holtec has been talking about in terms of DOE being responsible would require a change in federal law,” Hancock said. He also disputed Holtec’s assertion in its environment report to the NRC that the federal government would be responsible for emergency training.

In the end, he asked legislators to consider two key questions. “The NRC has licensed more than 70 sites at reactor sites to store [waste], saying it’s safe,” he said. “So if it’s safe to store where it is, why does it need to come to New Mexico?”

Utilities earn profits by generating the electricity that generated the waste, he said. If storing waste generated economic opportunities, communities would want to keep it. “So, is it really good for the economy if these communities want to get rid of it?”

NM residents rally

Last Tuesday night in Albuquerque, more than 200 people filled a hotel ballroom to hear from NRC officials about the licensing process and to comment on Holtec’s plans. Heaton, a representative from Holtec and a handful of people spoke in favor of the plans. Most of the more-than 60 speakers opposed the license. Even those not signed up to speak offered commentary from the audience, heckling proponents and cheering when people spoke against the project.

A former state employee spoke—first to grumbles from the crowd when he said southeastern New Mexico is a good location, geologically speaking. As he continued, people began clapping. To the NRC, he said, “do thorough, thoughtful regulation—people in this state are tired of being walked on.” And to Holtec, he said, “Be open with people.”

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nonprofit nuclear watchdog, asked Heaton to consider what could happen if Holtec or subsequent operators go bankrupt after the facility is built.

“We need to look at that ultimate longevity of the facility: what is our ability to look so far into the future?” Mello asked, adding that socioeconomic analysis must be done, too. “We need to look at the attractiveness for businesses and residents,” he said. “Our only asset at this point is our attractiveness and our natural environment.”

Juan Reynosa with the Southwest Organizing Project grew up in Hobbs, and said he is in “extreme opposition” to the plans. He disagreed that the nuclear industry has benefitted his hometown.

“That’s a false narrative,” he said, and one that perpetuates a legacy of environmental justice violations. “Once again,” he said, “white men are coming into our state to inflict violence on our landscapes and our people.”

Journalist Denise Tessier recalled covering hearings and similar meetings in the 1970s and ‘80s, when the state was considering whether or not to allow DOE to site WIPP near Carlsbad.

“Throughout the WIPP steps, New Mexico was told, if we would accept low-level, transuranic waste, we would not be asked to accept high-level, commercial waste,” she said. “We were told we would have done our part with the nation’s nuclear waste problem.”

Hobbs resident Nick Maxwell fired off against Heaton and the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance. “I am ashamed of my public servants,” he said, alleging they are motivated by the profit-sharing agreement and contracts, such as for the facility’s private security. “I can tell you a few things about ELEA,” he said to the crowd: “They’re all bad.”

State Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, lives about three miles from nuclear waste awaiting storage. She’s aware of the need for permanent storage for high-level commercial waste, too. But decision-makers must commit to environmental justice, she said, and ensure those most impacted have a say in the process.

As a member of the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, she questioned Heaton and Holtec—including about the strength of the casks over time, waste transportation and regulatory oversight.

Afterwards, she told NM Political Report the answers did not alleviate her concerns.

She also attended the public hearing in Gallup, where she said people stood in strong opposition to the plan.

“We’ve got dozens, if not more, untreated uranium sites, the Church Rock spill, and folks who have lived with this legacy for more than seven decades,” she said. In 1979, a dam at a uranium mill operated by United Nuclear Corporation broke and spilled more than 90 million gallons of radioactive waste into the Rio Puerco. “They feel that operators in this industry have not been held to task in the past and they do not want to entertain the idea of another operator in this industry coming in and having more failures, more broken promises and more devastation to the environment.”

‘Legacy ramifications’

As chair of the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Doña Ana, is keeping a close eye on the proposed project and Holtec’s license application process.

“First and foremost, I’m concerned about public safety issues connected to the project, including in the transportation,” he said. “Do we have the infrastructure capacity to safely bring it into the state, and who would be the affected communities it would come by?”

He’s also worried about first responder training, the ability of the state and local departments to handle an accident and the safety of New Mexicans in the long-term.

Local communities have the right to pursue economic development plans, he acknowledged, but they have to consider the broader impact storing high-level nuclear waste could have on the state as a whole. And the concerns of communities along waste transportation routes are valid, too.

“It’s just a reality that this isn’t just about local impacts to southeastern New Mexico, and it will impact lots of people around the state,” he said. “Beyond which, there are certain legacy ramifications to the state as a whole…would it have an impact on the reputation of the state as a whole, and the other industries we’re trying to lure to the state?”

Economic development is in the eye of the beholder, he said, noting as a cluster of nuclear facilities have arisen in southeastern New Mexico, some people have embraced that.

“That is the viewpoint of a handful of leaders who are certainly trying to continue this track record and seize new opportunities,” he said. “But certainly, there is another point of view.”

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s public comment period for its scoping process on Holtec’s license for the HI-STORE Consolidated Interim Storage Facility is open until July 30. Comments can be emailed to