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Nuke firm eyes site near WIPP for temporary waste storage

Friday, March 31, 2017

By Rebecca Moss
Santa Fe – The New Mexican

A rendering of a temporary storage facility that would consolidate the country’s spent fuel rods at a site roughly 15 miles north of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. The waste would be stored from 23 to three feet below the surface, and filled with as many as 87 spent fuel assemblies each, made up of thousands of fuel rods. Only the canisters’ lids — heavy, 4-ton steel rectangles running in perfect rows — would be visible on the surface. Courtesy Holtec International
All radioactive waste generated by the nation’s nuclear power plants could be shipped to southeastern New Mexico as soon as 2022 and stored for decades just below ground, on the dry plains near Carlsbad, if a federal agency gives its approval.

On Friday, Holtec International, a nuclear fuel manufacturing and management company based in Florida, filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to create a temporary storage facility that would consolidate spent fuel rods from across the U.S. at a single site about 15 miles north of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

The project already has gained wide support from a number of state lawmakers, top state and county officials and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

In a statement issued Friday, Holtec said the state government and local communities "have provided unwavering support for the program."

If the federal regulatory agency approves the plan, a process expected to take two years, the company could break ground on the nearly 1,000-acre parcel by 2019, with waste shipments starting in 2022. Company officials said they expect the project to generate up to 350 construction jobs and several hundred permanent jobs, including on-site security personnel, after the site opens.

The site would be licensed for 40 years by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and then it would be subject to a license renewal process.

Currently, there are 61 operating nuclear power plants, and 27 that are retired or in the process of being decommissioned, across 30 states, all with casks of above-ground nuclear waste. The largest of them, the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona, which supplies power to New Mexico through the Public Service Company of New Mexico, has roughly 120 concrete casks of waste sitting on site.

Nuclear power plants run on nuclear fuel — composed of radioactive uranium compacted into thin rods, 15 inches long and the width of a pinky finger. The rods are stacked into a rack and used to generate nuclear power through fission. After about six years, the rods are cooled in ponds on plant property and then stored above ground in concrete casks.

But a number of states worry about the vulnerability of these materials — either from an accident that could compromise the environment or public health, or from an attack. Nuclear power plants are considered a potential security threat, in part because the radioactive materials they hold could be used to create crude nuclear bombs.

In 2012, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future identified temporary consolidated storage as a feasible solution.

The Holtec site would have the capacity for 10,000 canisters of spent nuclear fuel, more than enough to hold all the spent rods generated in the U.S. so far, according to company officials.

They said the facility would emit a radiation dose of "virtually zero."

At the site, a mile from N.M. 62, nearly equidistant from Hobbs and Carlsbad, a wide pit would be dug 30 feet into the earth and divided by hundreds of cylindrical carbon steel vessels. The waste would be stored from 3 to 23 feet below the surface. Each vessel would be filled with as many as 89 spent fuel assemblies, each made up of thousands of fuel rods.

The waste field would have the appearance of a graveyard. Only the canister lids — 4-ton steel squares placed in perfect rows — would be visible from the surface.

Joy Russell, a spokeswoman for Holtec International, said underground storage not only protects the environment but guards the material from terrorists, missile attacks or aircraft collisions.

It would be the fourth underground facility of this nature designed by Holtec in the U.S. A second proposed site, commissioned by Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists, is a year into the application process for regulatory approval. Located in Andrews, Texas, just east of the New Mexico border, the project has generated protest and mixed support from the surrounding communities. The two sites are fewer than 50 miles apart.

Russell said community support for the proposed New Mexico facility was a key factor in its location. "The general population in the southeast New Mexico area is very knowledgeable about nuclear," she said, "and is very welcoming to nuclear-based industry for its industry growth."

In fact, the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a coalition of officials from the two counties and several cities in them, first approached Holtec about the project in 2012. The alliance had previously purchased the land north of WIPP in 2007, hoping to convert spent nuclear fuel into regenerated fuel, according to alliance vice chairman John Heaton.

But that project never materialized. In 2012, when the Blue Ribbon Commission recommended a consolidation site, the alliance saw another use for the land.

"We thought this was an ideal location," Heaton said.

The area is close to a four-lane highway and a railroad line, and is 25 miles from the closest community. Although, there is a ranch home a few miles from the site, as well as potash, and oil and gas operations nearby.

"The people here have a very good and deep understanding of nuclear materials and what the risks are and what they aren’t," Heaton said.

He said the project could be a $2.4 billion investment in capital for the state, although company officials declined to discuss cost estimates Friday.

Carlsbad has had an intimate relationship with nuclear waste since WIPP began accepting low-level transuranic waste — largely contaminated soil, tools and rags — in 1999. The plant closed down for nearly three years — only reopening in January — after an underground fire and a radiation leak in 2014, caused by an improperly packaged waste drum that burst underground. Parts of the salt mine and its ventilation system were contaminated.

Still, it seems that support for nuclear waste projects has not waned in the region.

The area is also home to the Urenco USA uranium enrichment factory in Eunice, which provides the materials used at the core of fuel rods.

Holtec says it has received support from six local legislators and Mayor Dale Janway of Carlsbad, Mayor Sam Cobb of Hobbs, commissioners in Eddy and Lea counties, state Environment Secretary Butch Tongate and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Ken McQueen.

Gov. Martinez expressed her support for the project in 2015, writing a letter to then-U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

"I support the [Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance] and its member cities and counties in their effort to establish a consolidated interim storage facility in southeastern New Mexico that will be regulated by the high safety and technical standards of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," the governor wrote.

"We desperately need jobs," said Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia. "There is not a single thing that would solve our fiscal situation quicker than more goods jobs. This industry provides good jobs and has a good track record.

"I don’t believe the community or the state will allow something to occur that they don’t believe is safe," he continued. "Look at WIPP’s track record. Overall, we have had a very good track record, and I believe this facility will perform equally."

Eddy County Commission Chairwoman Stella Davis also said the project would be an important job creator and voiced support for the nuclear industry.

Even if the temporary consolidation project moves forward, there is currently no permanent place for the waste to go. That could leave New Mexico with the burden without an end in sight.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in an email that he "won’t support an interim disposal site without a plan for permanent disposal — whether the site is in southeastern New Mexico or anywhere else in the country — because that nuclear waste could be orphaned there indefinitely."

In 1987, Congress designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the place to permanently dispose of high-level waste. Billions of dollars were invested in the project despite public and political outcry in the state. When former President Barack Obama took office, he halted the project and sought to withdraw its license application from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But President Donald Drumpf appears to have other ideas. A draft budget released in March outlines $120 million for Yucca Mountain and interim storage over the coming fiscal year, with few further details on the plan. Nevada lawmakers said in March that they would reject any restart of the Yucca Mountain waste site project.

Udall, meanwhile, said WIPP already has served as New Mexico’s contribution to the nation’s waste storage problem.

"Any future nuclear waste mission in New Mexico would need broad support throughout the state, as well as an independent scientific analysis ensuring its safety before I would consider supporting it," he said.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss(at)

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.

Dallas County officials to weigh in on Texas radioactive dump site proposal

April 3, 2017

Jeff Mosier, Environmental Writer
Dallas Morning News

Andrews County is a five-hour drive to the west, but a proposed project there is worrying some Dallas County officials.

Waste Control Specialists has an application pending to store tons of used fuel from nuclear power plants in sparsely populated West Texas. That radioactive waste could potentially pass through Texas’ major cities — including ones in the Dallas area — by train.

Dallas County commissioners are scheduled to vote Tuesday on a resolution opposing any effort to transport "high level" radioactive waste through this area.

"The public health of Dallas County residents must be protected. Just because the railroad goes through the county does not mean that the population of a large urban area should be put in peril," Commissioner Theresa Daniel said in a written statement.

Daniel asked that the resolution be placed on the agenda. The proposed waste site would hold spent fuel from nuclear power plants, where the waste is now housed as it awaits a long-term dump site.

County Commissioner Theresa Daniel plans to introduce a resolution Tuesday opposing the transportation of nuclear waste through Dallas County. (Nathan Hunsinger/The Dallas Morning News Staff Photographer)

Bexar County commissioners have already expressed their opposition, and San Antonio city officials are considering weighing in on the issue.

Midland County officials are also considering a resolution.

"The transportation of spent nuclear fuel takes place safely every day, of every week, of every year in the United States," said Waste Control spokesman Chuck McDonald. "There’s never been a single accident that resulted in the release of any radioactive material of any kind."

He said a recent Department of Energy report confirmed that.

The first phase of Waste Control’s plan would take spent fuel from plants that had been closed and decommissioned, McDonald said.

The Department of Energy, now led by former Gov. Rick Perry, has not yet created a transportation plan for the Waste Control proposal. But some possible routes lead through heavily populated areas.

The Waste Control plan calls for the waste to arrive by rail. Trucks would only be used if the plant didn’t have direct access to a rail line.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said he’s not taking a stance on the Waste Control application and acknowledged that the nuclear "waste has to go somewhere."

"The metroplex has 7 million people, and I am responsible for the safety of 2.6 million here in Dallas County," he said. "We simply don’t want radioactive waste to come through our area. There are ways to route those trains around."

Andrews County, where the dump would be located, is one of the least populated areas in Texas. It had about 18,000 residents in 2015.

Environmental activists are rounding up support from local governments in an effort to halt the proposal to store the waste along the Texas border with New Mexico. Waste Control, a firm started by the late Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, has submitted its application but this is likely to be a long process.

One other company, Holtec International, submitted an application last month. That site is in a county adjacent to Andrews, just across the New Mexico border.

McDonald called these efforts by environmental groups "premature" and "publicity stunts." He said there would be further public hearings. And local government along the transportation routes would have input.

Tom "Smitty" Smith, outgoing director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, said the transportation plan will be finalized after the permit is issued. He said this is the time for local governments and individuals to have their say.

Critics — including Public Citizen and the Sustainable and Economic Development Coalition — have pointed to many reasons why they oppose the plan. They are concerned the site could taint the Ogallala aquifer or that it’s not sufficiently secure.

On Monday, Public Citizen pointed to the danger of a terrorist attack or accident while a train and its waste pass through populated areas.

"… Current nuclear waste transport casks have not been subjected to full-scale testing," Smith said in a written statement. "For example, the casks are only required to withstand an engulfing fire at 1475 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes, while materials that share the railways burn at much hotter temperatures, like diesel, which burns at 1800º F and for longer than 30 minutes."

Critics also worry the Andrews County facility could turn into a permanent — rather than temporary — storage site.

The federal government previously decided to permanently house its high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada. After years of political fights and questions about its suitability, the project was essentially shelved during President Barack Obama’s administration.

But there are efforts by President Donald Drumpf’s administration to revive the Yucca Mountain project. Drumpf’s 2018 budget included $120 million for repository construction, which is opposed by Nevada politicians. And Perry made a surprise visit to the site Monday.

There’s also pressure from the state of Texas in support of the project. Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit against Perry, as energy secretary, over Yucca Mountain. The litigation demands that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission take an official vote on the project.

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.