September 2, 2022

Amid New Mexico’s history of legacy pollution, Holtec tells lawmakers that nuclear storage proposal is safe and secure

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.

Officials with the company that wishes to temporarily store spent nuclear fuel in New Mexico are working to assure lawmakers that it would be both safe and secure. 

Holtec International Project Director Ed Mayer presented the plans for the nuclear fuel storage to the Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee on Thursday during its meeting in Hobbs.

His presentation comes as New Mexico has been fighting the company’s proposal. During this year’s legislative session, legislators introduced a bill to ban the storage of spent nuclear fuel in New Mexico. While the bill made it through two committees, the House ultimately did not pass the proposal. 

Related: Bill to ban spent nuclear fuel storage in New Mexico passes committee

While the bill did not pass this year, spent nuclear fuel storage will likely be debated once again during next year’s session.

In July, after the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced plans to issue a license to Holtec to construct and operate the facility, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called upon the Legislature to “deliver a proposal to my desk that protects New Mexico from becoming the de facto home of the country’s spent nuclear fuel and it will have my full support.”

Opponents point to the risks surrounding radioactive material as well as the history of pollution in New Mexico and environmental racism.

New Mexico has also filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in an attempt to block Holtec’s facility.

Related: New Mexico sues, argues interim nuclear storage facility could put environment, economy at risk

Mayer told legislators that there is very little risk during transport and that the canisters that hold the waste are strong enough to withstand a plane flying into them.

The plan calls for spent nuclear waste from power plants out of state to be transported via rail to a facility in Lea and Eddy counties in New Mexico until a repository can be created to permanently store spent nuclear fuel. 

When asked about the concerns that Holtech could become a permanent storage place, Mayer said it is only permitted for temporary storage, which he described as decades. At the same time, he said the canisters without any maintenance can last two hundred to three hundred years. 

He said once people accept that the project is both safe and secure, they can begin discussions of the economic benefits—including billions of dollars of investment and hundreds of new jobs—that the project will bring.

Related: ‘Forever deadly’: State officials, communities scramble to fight a proposal to house high-level nuclear waste in New Mexico

State Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, said he is not opposed to nuclear energy and believes it will be an important tool to decarbonize the energy sector, however he asked Mayer about surety bonds to cover risk.

This has been one of the concerns that groups like the Sierra Club have brought up in opposition to Holtec’s proposal.

Mayer said there is a very low—one in a billion—chance of a release of nuclear waste and if that does occur it will have a small impact.

He outlined a federal law setting aside money for clean up and state funding to train first responders.

Mayer then spoke about funding that will be set aside for decommissioning at the end of the operations.

Mayer said Holtec has liability insurance for the facility, which he said he believes is $100 million of liability insurance for operations of the facility.

Mayer’s answers did not fully alleviate Soule’s concerns. Soules spoke of abandoned uranium mines in the Gallup area and the brine well in Carlsbad that’s operator filed bankruptcy and “walked away.” Soules said in those cases, clean up of the sites has fallen to the public to foot the bill. In the case of the brine well, New Mexico invested more than $80 million in remediation.

Soules said surety bonds ensure that the facility will be cleaned up if the company goes bankrupt.

“We have a long history of legacy issues with industry,” he said.

Mayer said Holtec did take into consideration that the company could go out of business and created a fund for two years of operations of the facility should that occur. He said that Holtec is not the only company that can do the proposed storage and that one of the competitors could step in and operate the facility should Holtec close.