April 11, 2018

By Lisa Dunlap
Roswell Daily Record

A Consolidated Interim Storage Facility is planned for Lea County, halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs.

A Consolidated Interim Storage Facility is planned for Lea County, halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs. A group opposing the site due to concerns about risks involved are holding a news conference in Roswell today. Government officials are holding a public meeting here April 30. (Submitted Graphic)

The effort by the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA) LLC and Holtec International to build a $2.4 billion interim underground storage site about halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs has become a lightning rod for debate during the past few years.

ELEA Chairman John Heaton has said the project, which is planned to open in 2022, will bring in millions of dollars a year in revenues, about 150 permanent jobs and federal monies for roads and other public project improvements. He said it also meets an urgent national need and that the fuel rods do not represent a significant danger, as they will be more than 30 years old when shipped, meaning their radioactive elements will have largely been depleted. He also said that Holtec has 30 years of experience developing such sites.

"We think it is needed nationally and, because of WIPP (the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad) and UNRECO (the uranium enrichment facility in Eunice) in our area, we have developed somewhat of a nationalistic spirit in our communities, recognizing the need to solve some of the problems that are costing taxpayers billions," said Heaton in a December interview. "We think it is a good, clean, safe industry for our area. It is temporary. The spent fuel will eventually be removed to a depository."

Critics contend that the site poses an unnecessary risk of environmental damage and public health risks, not only at the site itself but in other cities, as the canisters carrying the rods move over railways and roads.

In 2016, economic development leaders and business leaders in Eddy and Lea counties began working on their idea for the site, which the official site applications say will hold up to 8,680 tons of used nuclear fuel rods in large canisters stored in an underground facility, with the rods shipped by train and trucks from nuclear plants in the United States. The plans call for the used rods to be stored at the site for about 40 years until a permanent disposal site is developed.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission deemed the group’s application complete and acceptable for detailed review Feb. 28. Now the agency is holding a series of meetings in the region to seek public comments about what issues should be considered so that the required federal Environmental Impact Statement can be developed.

The Roswell meeting by the commission is scheduled for 4 p.m., April 30 in the Campus Union Building on the Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell campus. Meetings are also planned in Hobbs and Carlsbad for early May.

Opponents with the Halt Holtec Coalition, meanwhile, are staging news conferences Wednesday and today in southeastern New Mexico, with participants carrying a large inflatable cask symbolizing the canisters. They have held and are planning other events in the state this spring.

"There will be 10,000 shipments of this dangerous, deadly waste headed out to the Holtec site," said coalition member Tom "Smitty" Smith. "Our hope is to have people think about whether they want this waste moving through their communities."

He said railway accidents have occurred, and cleanup of nuclear materials would cost millions. In a worst-case scenario, he said, people could be exposed to what he called deadly radioactive waste if a canister were to rupture.

The coalition’s Roswell event is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the Anderson Contemporary Museum of Art, 409 E. College Blvd.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622–7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02(at)@rdrnews.com.

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