Interim nuclear waste storage facility moves closer to opening, despite critics

March 2, 2018

Adrian C Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

Thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel waste could be buried beneath southeast New Mexico.

An interim nuclear waste storage facility proposed between Eddy and Lea counties began the permitting process that could ultimately see the site come into service by 2022.

Holtech International’s underground consolidated interim storage facility (CIS) would store spent nuclear fuel rods underground, taken from decommissioned nuclear power plants around the country via train, and held until they can be transported to a permanent repository.

In total, Holtech’s initial application calls for the storage of 8,680 metric tons of uranium from commercial spent nuclear fuel during a 40-year license term – the first phase of the project.

In a Wednesday letter from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Holtech’s application, submitted in March 2017, was accepted.

The acceptance began the permitting process and authorized NRC staff to begin a "detailed safety, security and environmental review of the project."

The first round of requests for additional information (RAIs) needed for the review will continue from March to August, the letter read, with an option for additional requests until February 2019.

Per the letter, NRC staff expects to complete its reviews by July 2020.

In total, the review process was expected to cost about $7.5 million, records show.

"It’s really demonstrating the commitment of Holtec and the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance to move forward with this facility," said Joy Russell, Vice President of Corporate Business Development and Communications at Holtec, of the application.

NRC staff plan to contact Holtech to schedule future public hearings on the project, the letter read, to discuss the review and expectations for Holtech staff during the process.

"The proposed schedule assumes that Holtech will provide timely and high-quality RAI responses within 60 days of the of the receipt of each individual RAI letter," read the letter.

John Heaton, chair of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA), an organization formed to oversee the early stages of the facility’s development, said he thinks the project could be complete by 2022.

"This is the first really big step," Heaton said. "We’re going through the application process. It will be a very public process."

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, first suggested an interim storage facility for spent nuclear in 2012, records show, aiming to move the waste away from several decommissioned nuclear power plants around the country, to be held until a permanent repository is available.

A study by Oak Ridge National Laboratories showed an interim storage site could save the U.S. Treasury $15 billion by 2040, $30 billion by 2050, and $54 billion by 2060.

Heaton said the sooner the project is finished, the more money it could save American tax payers.

"It was more economical to have one facility," he said. "All of the issues, the research, were resources for recommending a single site."

‘A bad idea everywhere’

"The plan proposed by Holtec would dump the entire nation’s high-level radioactive waste in New Mexico, creating huge risks and a massive burden for the people of our state. This is clearly an environmental injustice as New Mexico is a predominately Hispanic, Native American, people of color state."
Rose Gardner, Eunice resident

Critics of the project cited the danger of transporting what could be volatile nuclear waste, and worried about the environmental impact of burying spent nuclear fuel in New Mexico.

"The U.S. must minimize movement of radioactive waste from nuclear reactors, not ship it into rural New Mexico through heavily populated areas and many low-income communities," said John Buchser, Water Committee chair for the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter. "This proposal endangers New Mexicans."

Don Hancock, nuclear programs director at the Southwest Research and Information Center said the proposal involves shipping more radioactive material in a shorter time than past proposals for the DOE’s Yucca Mountain site, a permanent repository proposed to be established in Nevada and hold up to $63,000 metric tons of spent fuel.

A DOE study, Hancock said, suggested the proposed disposal at Yucca Mountain could cause 160 to 180 latent cancer deaths among transportation workers, and up to 110 traffic fatalities.

The CIS, he said, could end up holding up to 100,000 metric tons.

"Because the Holtec proposal is for significantly more waste being shipped (than Yucca Mountain) in a shorter time period, even more fatalities are likely," he said.

Hancock said the project was not only a problem for New Mexico, but the concept of a privately operated interim storage facility was a "bad idea" everywhere.

He suggested storing the fuel at the reactor sites where it was originally spent.

"These things are uneconomical, they’re dangerous, and they’re unnecessary," Hancock said of interim storage facilities. "If the facility can store the fuel at Holtech, it can be stored anywhere, including where it already is. What does it tell you that the people who have it, don’t want to keep it?"

"The plan proposed by Holtec would dump the entire nation’s high-level radioactive waste in New Mexico, creating huge risks and a massive burden for the people of our state. This is clearly an environmental injustice as New Mexico is a predominately Hispanic, Native American, people of color state."

The CIS would add to truck traffic in southeast New Mexico, he said, further burdening the area’s already crowded industrial traffic.

An accidental release of radiation at the site could also impact the area’s booming oil and gas industry, Hancock said, by sending radiation underground as extraction operations drill down for oil and natural gas.

Putting the radioactive material on rail cars could also create a danger of contamination for the potash industry, which transports the ore via rail car from the mines in southern Eddy County.

"If you’re transporting things around, there will be accidents whether there is a radiological release or not,” Hancock said. “It could be really disastrous for the future and current economy."

The safest in the world?

Heaton called any challenges to the safety of transporting the fuel a "boondoggle."

He said transportation concerns for the CIS are the same as initial opposition voiced when the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), an underground repository for transuranic nuclear waste about 26 miles from Carlsbad, first began operations.

The American Nuclear Society hosted its annual conference in Carlsbad from Sept. 10 to 15. Hundreds of scientists attended the conference and presented work from their facilities. Wochit

All those fears, Heaton said, were proved wrong.

"We had these same concerns when WIPP opened. It’s just not the case. The idea that you shouldn’t move (nuclear waste) is a complete fallacy. This idea of leaving it where it is makes no sense at all," Heaton said.

Lea County Manager Michael Gallagher said he is confident in the NRC’s review of the project to ensure it’s safe execution and ongoing operations.

He said the facility would augment the region’s nuclear corridor, including WIPP near Carlsbad, and URENCO’s nuclear enrichment facility in Eunice.

"The proposed project, I think, compliments and is consistent with some of our other nuclear businesses in the area," Gallagher said. "This is an opportunity for our economy to diversify, and have more employment opportunities."

Gallagher said he would rely on experts in the nuclear field to determine and ensure the safety of the facility when it goes into service.

"I’m confident the NRC will review the project," he said. "I have no reasons to think the project wouldn’t be safe. We will look forward to the response, and the review the NRC will have of the project."

"We have a lot of professionals in the area with experience in nuclear."

How does it work?

In total, Holtech’s CIS could hold up to 10,000 canisters of spent fuel, each containing about 12 metric tons each.

Housing the 120,000 metric tons of waste would take up about 500 of the property’s 1,000 acres – about 35 miles east of Carlsbad, intending to provide a buffer zone between the waste and property line.

Emplacing the spent fuel begins by digging a pit about 30 feet underground.

Next, a 3-foot-thick slab of reinforced concrete is poured into the pit, and 18-foot tall containers are bolted to the slab.

High-flow concrete is then poured into the pit and through the containers until the concrete is 3 feet from the top of the containers.

Then, another 3-foot concrete slab is poured onto the surface.

The fuel rods are emplaced in the vaults via canisters made of steel and weighing about 4 tons.

Inside, radioactive rods will cool naturally via convection.

More: WIPP air system to cost about $400M, complete by 2022

In total, Heaton estimated the entire facility would take 10 years to construct, employing up to 300 workers from the local area for a decade.

"It’s just a very good system," he said of the CIS. "It’s one of the safest that is available in the world. We didn’t chose who did this lightly. (Holtech is) absolutely the best."

And the NRC will continue to monitor the facility’s operations once it comes into service, Heaton said, through a "robust" process.

"The NRC is a very tough regulator," he said. "They’re also involved in construction and the operation’s oversight."

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden(at) or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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