November 20, 2019

‘Not much benefit to the state’: Legislators scrutinize details of Holtec’s proposed nuclear storage facility

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Holtec International

A rendering of the HI-STORE consolidated interim storage facility, proposed to be built in Lea County to store nuclear waste from across the country.

Ed Mayer, program manager at the private firm that is seeking to build one of the world’s largest nuclear waste storage facilities in New Mexico, wants to set the record straight.

“You hear sometimes, oh, this is going to be a nuclear waste dump. This isn’t a dump,” Mayer told members of the Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee earlier this month. “This is a highly engineered, safe and secure facility.”

The firm Holtec International, which specializes in spent nuclear fuel storage, has applied for a license from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to construct and operate the facility in southeastern New Mexico. The proposal, which is still moving through the licensing application process established by the NRC for consolidated interim storage, would house up to 120,000 metric tons of high-level waste at capacity — more nuclear waste than currently exists in the country.

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During his presentation to the committee, Mayer pitched the project as an economic boon to the state that would not affect oil and gas activity in the area and assured committee members the facility would not threaten water resources in the area.

But legislators at the meeting weren’t completely sold on the project.

“I’m reminded of how [much] of a long-term legacy this project is creating for fellow New Mexicans,” said state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces. “We’re dealing with something that our successors’ successors’ successors will be dealing with, with not much benefit to the state and a very significant upfront cost.”

‘Invited by New Mexicans’

The proposal would see high-level nuclear waste transported from power plants across the country to a facility in New Mexico by railway. Holtec maintains the facility would be a temporary repository to store the waste while the federal government finds a permanent location for it. The Department of Energy spent some $15 billion building a permanent underground facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but the project was shuttered in 2009 by former president Barack Obama.

In late 2015, the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance, a government organization made up of city and county officials, sent out a request for proposal for nuclear waste storage solutions for a tract of land the alliance had acquired and surveyed for nuclear operations. The group considered three proposals, but settled on Holtec’s technology. During the following legislative session, state lawmakers passed two memorials in support of the project, while then-governor Susana Martinez sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry supporting the establishment of an interim storage facility in New Mexico to house the high-level waste.

“At Holtec, we say we’re in New Mexico because we were invited by New Mexicans,” Mayer said.

Some of that support seems to have evaporated. In June, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham voiced her opposition to the project in a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Kristine Svinicki. Lujan Grisham said the project “poses an unacceptable risk to New Mexicans,” and that establishing the facility in southeastern New Mexico “would be economic malpractice.”

State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard also raised concerns with the proposal and Holtec’s statements to the NRC. “This is not the right site for high-level nuclear storage,” Garcia Richard said in a statement from June. “There is no guarantee that high-level nuclear waste can be safely transported to and through New Mexico. There is no guarantee that there won’t be a hazardous interaction between the storage site and nearby oil, gas, and mining activities.There is no guarantee that this site will truly be ‘interim’ and won’t become the permanent dumping ground for our nation’s nuclear waste.”

Meanwhile, residents across the state have begun to voice opposition to the project. Twelve communities have officially opposed the project, including the City of Las Cruces, and the county governments of Santa Fe, McKinley and Bernalillo counties.

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In a separate presentation before the committee, Sierra Club legislative issues volunteer Patricia Cardona described the use of the term “consolidated storage” as a “marketing campaign.”

“Consolidated storage is just another word for permanent storage, and that’s how a lot of people see it in southeastern New Mexico,” Cardona said. “That land, should it end up hosting the high-level nuclear waste, will end up being occupied on a permanent basis for 100,000 to 1 million years. That means that land cannot be reused for any other purpose.”

Cardona said the area sited for the proposed facility is near a number of dairy and agricultural ranches.

“We really have to think about our land use, to think about being able to build other kinds of businesses that don’t end up spoiling the land and air,” she said. “For people in southeastern New Mexico, what they want is clean air, clean water, and clean soil. They want to have an economy that is healthy that doesn’t damage them.”

Legislators push back on Holtec’s proposal

Holtec anticipates the facility will generate a $3 billion capital investment in the area, and will create 100 long-term operations jobs, and 100 temporary construction jobs. Mayer said Holtec has also entered into a revenue sharing agreement with the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance.

“We’re going to share 30 percent of our gross revenue,” he said.

But the company has no formal revenue-sharing agreement with the state of New Mexico. Mayer said it would be up to the Alliance to enter into its own agreement with the state for sharing revenues derived from the project.

Steinborn questioned an asymmetry in the proposal that would see the state and its communities take on the health, safety and environmental risks of housing high-level nuclear storage without reaping many benefits. 

He pointed to the state’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), which he said provides new jobs each year, and generates money for the state each year. Under Holtec’s proposal, the nuclear waste would be owned by Holtec, rather than the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the low-level nuclear waste that’s shipped to WIPP.

Emergency responses to any accidents would fall on the communities where the accidents occur. Mayer stated that town and county emergency response teams “are already trained for nuclear release” scenarios.

Steinborn wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

“There’s no revenue share with the state of New Mexico, there’s no emergency preparedness money, and it’s almost like an afterthought. These are all huge concerns,” Steinborn said.

During a separate presentation before the committee, State Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, questioned the wisdom of transporting thousands of tons of radioactive material across the country.

“I’ve never understood what the rationale was for transporting this nuclear waste for these many miles all the way down to New Mexico. I don’t have an answer as to why it can’t be stored close to where it was created,” Rodriguez said. “All I can think of is that there are dollar signs involved here, there’s some kind of profit that’s really leading this whole thing.”

“Some may think it’s safe — maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The ramifications of it not being safe, and the fact that there’s potential for it not being safe is there,” she added. “And for that reason alone, we shouldn’t be looking at it transporting it this many miles.” 

During his presentation, Mayer pointed out that spent nuclear fuel is currently being transported through portions of the U.S.

“There’s been over 800 shipments of spent nuclear fuel. There’s never been an accident, there’s never been a release,” Mayer said. “Our nation knows how to put the policies and plans in place to do this safely.”

But Steinborn pushed back against the idea that the U.S. has experience handling this type of facility.

“We have experience, but not remotely on the scale that’s being talked about here,” he said. 

“Over the last ten years, we’ve had almost 100 incidents of safety performance issues related to storage,” he said. “I think it’s one of those issues where it’s not a matter of if, but when. We need to humble and understand that accidents do happen. We’ve seen that with our experience with WIPP.”

Searching for a nuclear utopia

Lawmakers on the committee were reserved in the comments about the proposal but not many voiced support. State Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, said the proposal “has been a huge issue for New Mexico.”

“A lot of people in the southeastern part of the state are concerned about this,” she said.

State Rep. Cathrynn Brown, a Republican who represents Eddy County and has been an ardent supporter of the project, criticized opponents of the proposal for being unrealistic.

“To me, the overall theme here is that we have a problem that is what to do with nuclear waste or spent fuel. What I hear also is this desire for utopia, where nothing ever goes wrong, there’s no risk in anything,” Brown said, after a presentation against the project by Nuclear Issues Study Group co-founder Leona Morgan. 

“That’s not the real world. The word utopia means no place, meaning it does not exist. So we deal with the real world,” Brown said.