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Why should NM store nation’s nuclear waste?

April 3rd, 2020
Albuquerque Journal

By Laura Watchempino / Multicultural Alliance For A Safe Environment,
Pueblo Of Acoma

If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s conclusion that it’s safe to move spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants across the country to a
proposed storage facility in Lea County sounds vanilla-coated, it’s because the draft environmental impact statement for a Consolidated Interim Storage Facility submitted by Holtec International did not address how the casks containing the spent fuel would be transported to New Mexico.

It’s likely the casks would be transported primarily by rail using aging infrastructure in need of constant repair. But our rail systems were not
built to support the great weight of these transport casks containing thin-wall fuel storage canisters.

Nor was the potential for cracked or corroded canisters to leak radiation studied because an earlier NRC Generic EIS for the Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel assumed damaged fuel storage canisters would be detected during an intermediary dry transfer system or a pool. But Holtec’s proposal only addresses a new destination for the high-level nuclear waste – not the removal and transport of the fuel storage canisters from nuclear power plants to New Mexico.

Even transport casks with canisters that are not damaged will release radiation as they are transported from nuclear power plants to the storage facility, exposing populations along the transport routes in a majority of states and tribal communities in New Mexico to repeated doses of radiation.

Other issues not considered in the draft EIS were the design life of the thin-wall canisters encasing the nuclear fuel rods and faulty installation at reactor sites like San Onofre, or the self-interest of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance in using the land it acquired for a consolidated interim storage site.

Thin-wall canisters cannot be inspected for cracks and the fuel rods inside are not retrievable for inspection or monitoring without destroying the canister. NRC does not require continuous monitoring of the storage canisters for pressure changes or radiation leaks. The fuel rods inside the canisters could go critical, or result in an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction, if water enters the canisters through cracks, admits both Holtec and the NRC. None of us are safe if any canister goes critical.

Yet a site-specific storage application like Holtec’s should have addressed NRC license requirements for leak testing and monitoring, as well as the quantity and type of material that will be stored at the site, such as low burnup nuclear fuel and high burnup fuel.

With so many deficiencies in the draft EIS, a reasonable alternative is to leave this dangerous radioactive nuclear waste at the nuclear plants that produced it in dry cask storage rather than multiply the risk by transporting thousands of containers that could be damaged across many thousands of miles and decades to southeastern New Mexico, then again to a permanent repository.

Interim storage of spent nuclear fuel at existing nuclear plant sites is already happening – there are 65 sites with operating reactors in the United States and dry cask storage is licensed at 35 of these sites in 24 states. But since the thin-wall canisters storing the fuel rods are at risk for major radioactive releases, they should be replaced with thick-walled containers that can be monitored and maintained. The storage containers should be stored away from coastal waters and flood plains in hardened buildings.

Attempting to remove this stabilized nuclear waste from where it is securely stored across hundreds or thousands of miles through our homelands and backyards to a private storage facility also raises some thorny liability issues, since the United States will then be relieved of overseeing the spent nuclear fuel in perpetuity. The states and nuclear plants that want to send us their long-lived radioactive waste will also be off the hook, leaving New Mexico holding a dangerously toxic bag without any resources to address the gradual deterioration of man-made materials or worse, a catastrophic event. It’s a win/win, however, for Holtec International and the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance.

Environmental justice footnote: When removal of uranium mine waste on the Navajo Nation was being discussed a few years ago, communities got this response from EPA: Digging up the waste and transporting it to a licensed repository in different states outside the Navajo Nation – which has always been the Nation’s preferred alternative – is the most expensive option. "Off-site disposal, because of the amount of waste in and around these areas, means possibly multiple years of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of trucks going in and out of the community and driving for miles."

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This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a “fair use” of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond “fair use”, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Opponents of nuke site near Carlsbad call for delay on permitting amid COVID-19 outbreak

Adrian Hedden, Carlsbad Current-Argus
April 1, 2020

Opponents of a proposed nuclear waste storage facility near Carlsbad and Hobbs sought to delay the facility’s federal licensing process, arguing the COVID-19 outbreak would make public hearings on the matter unsafe.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other governors across the country enacted public health orders in recent weeks, calling on residents to stay in their homes amid the pandemic.

A coalition of 50 environmental and Native American groups wrote a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Tuesday urging the NRC – the federal regulatory agency considering the application for license – to extend the public comment period for a facility proposed by Holtec International from 60 to 199 days.

The public comment period, if kept at 60 days, would expire on May 22.

The groups also called on the NRC to host public hearings not only in New Mexico, but also in 18 other cities across the country that could be impacted by the project and the transportation of potentially thousands of metric tons of spent nuclear fuel.

Holtec embarked on the licensing process through the NRC in 2016, and the Commission released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) earlier this month, noting “minimal” environmental impact from the facility itself or the transportation plan.

The company intended to build a consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) in a remote area near the Eddy-Lea county line to hold high-level spent nuclear fuel rods at about 40 feet under the surface until a permanent repository is developed.

The U.S. does not currently have a permanent repository for high-level waste, and a project to build one at Yucca Mountain, Nevada was blocked by state lawmakers.

The NRC recommended, pending a final EIS and safety review, that a license be granted to Holtec to build the facility.

But members of the coalition argued the facility could pose significant risk to the environment and local communities near the site and along the transportation routes, risks that could not be adequately addressed during the pandemic.

Rose Gardner, a resident of Eunice just miles from the propose site of the facility, said holding any hearings amid the outbreak and subsequent health precautions would prevent adequate public participation and should be postponed until the virus is contained.

"NRC has set up some hearings in New Mexico for the public to comment on the Holtec (draft environment impact statement), but unfortunately these dates come at a time when the whole nation, including New Mexico, is under stress and even dangerous conditions which do not allow for the common folk to even go to the grocery store or a doctor," she said.

"NRC must stand down and postpone these hearings, as well as extend the comment period. The most vulnerable in our communities would be put at risk if these hearings were held now."

Coordinator of the New Mexico-based Nuclear Issues Study Group Leona Morgan said the proposal demands full public participation, which became impossible due to government orders to shelter in place to avoid spreading COVID-19.

She said all proceedings should be postponed until larger gatherings were determined to be safe.

"These dangerous proposals for CIS facilities merit full participation by all impacted peoples. It would be unconscionable for the NRC to ramrod this process through during this pandemic," Morgan said.

"Without full public participation, this National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process would lack legitimacy and credibility."

A similar proposal came last week from New Mexico’s congressional delegation.

U.S. Reps. Xochitl Torres Small, Ben Ray Lujan and Deb Haaland (D-NM), along with U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) also called on the NRC to extend the public comment period on Holtec’s license application.

"In response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we urge the Commission to delay any public meetings and to extend the 60-day public comment period regarding the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Holtec’s proposed spent nuclear fuel storage facility in southeast New Mexico," the delegation’s letter read.

"The recent guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control is that public gatherings should not be held at this time."

But John Heaton, chair of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a group of local governments from Eddy and Lea counties along with the Cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, said the hearings could be held online and there was no need for a delay.

Heaton argued that an online hearing would allow more public participation by not forcing participants to travel, allowing more voices from a wider range of locations to comment.

“I’ve been led to believe the NRC will be hosting public meetings, but they might be more like webinars,” Heaton said. “That would be more productive, because people would actually have to put forward their arguments without all the interruptions and antics.”

He called attempts to delay Holtec’s licensing political and said a digital hearing would be more convenient for everyone on both sides of the issue.

"Is this one more of the delay tactics, or is it legitimate?" Heaton asked. "The fact that it would be a webinar certainly doesn’t prevent people from making their comments. It’s how business is done today, and it might not get any better.

"Allowing people to comment in a webinar would be more productive than just holding it at one location."

Victor Dricks, public affairs officer at the NRC said the agency was reviewing the proposed extension, and would make its decision publicly.

"We will respond directly to them after we review the letter," he said. "We make all our decisions public."

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

Fair Use Notice
This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a “fair use” of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond “fair use”, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.