Nuclear waste project in southeast New Mexico delayed as feds demand answers
April 2, 2021
A project to store high-level nuclear waste in southeast New Mexico was delayed as the federal government sought more answers from the company proposing to build and operate the facility as to its potential risk to human life.
Holtec International proposed to build the consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) to temporarily hold spent nuclear fuel rods from generator sites across the country as a permanent repository was developed.
Permanent, offsite disposal for high-level waste does not exist in the U.S. after such a project at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was blocked by state lawmakers.
Holtect’s project is amidst a federal licensing process overseen by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) which released an environmental analysis last year that reported minimal impact was expected from the construction and operation of the CISF.
The initial license application was to store 8,680 metric tons (MT) of spent nuclear fuel under a 40-year term, and the company intended to file additional applications for up to 20 phases for a total of up to 100,000 MT of waste and 120 years of operation.
Following the environmental review, the NRC embarked on a review of the proposed facility’s safety and security and made numerous requests for additional information (RAIs) to Holtec in September 2020.
But in a March 25 letter to Holtec, the NRC informed the company that its responses to the RAIs submitted in October and November 2020 and again in January were inadequate and more requests were needed.
This would delay the project, the letter read, past the May 2021 deadline for completing the safety review.
NRC staff found Holtec’s responses related to soil impacts, flooding, aircraft crash hazards, some building designs and analyses of the site’s shielding, thermal and aging management were "unanswered or incomplete," the letter read.
"However, the schedule assumed that Holtec would provide timely and high-quality responses to all outstanding requests for additional information (RAIs) by November 2020, and that no follow-up RAIs would be necessary. If additional RAIs were necessary, the staff would revise its schedule accordingly," the letter read.
"Accordingly, the staff will not be able to complete its safety and security review and publish a final (safety evaluation report) in May 2021."
A second set of RAIs was planned to be sent to Holtec in the next month, read the letter, repeating the requests, providing details on the information still needed and setting a two-week deadline for responses.
The schedule for the final report would not be updated by the NRC, until Holtec responds to the inquiry.
In the letter, the NRC said it already held a clarification call with Holtec staff on the RAIs and intended to hold more meetings to ensure the agency’s questions are properly addressed.
"We expect to schedule additional calls over the next few weeks to discuss the remaining items," the letter read.
"In order to ensure your responses to the staff’s second RAI are complete and adequately resolve the remaining issues, the staff strongly recommends Holtec staff meet with NRC to discuss the proposed answers prior to their submission."
Holtec Director of Government Affairs Joe Delmar said the company planned to work closely with the federal government in answering the needed questions and displaying the safety of the facility and its nuclear waste storage system.
"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process is rigorous, thorough and transparent to ensure the protection of public health and safety and the protection of the environment," Delmar said.
"Holtec remains committed to completing the NRC’s licensing process for HI-STORE CISF and remains equally committed to providing the country a supremely safe, secure, retrievable and centralized facility for storing spent nuclear fuel on an interim basis."
New Mexico State leaders voiced strong concerns for the project, opposing Holtec’s proposal for its potential to impact existing industries in southeast New Mexico such as oil and gas and agriculture.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called the project "economic malpractice" while State Attorney General Hector Balderas filed a lawsuit against the NRC to block the facility from being licensed.
Balderas argued federal law precluded the federal government from taking ownership of the waste while in transport to the Holtec site and thus project was illegal.
Last year, the NRC rejected multiple similar contentions from environmental and watchdog groups, arguing they were not admissible or the groups lacked standing to intervene in the licensing process as members did not reside within 50 miles of the facility.
The NRC dissented with arguments from the the Sierra Club, Beyond Nuclear and Fasken Land and Minerals that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act barred the U.S. Department of Energy from taking ownership of the waste.
Those groups displayed standing under the proximity standard.
The application, per the NRC’s decision, suggested Congress could change the federal law or nuclear plant owners could take ownership and be Holtec’s customers.
"The Board rejected the argument that the ‘mere mention of DOE renders Holtec’s license application unlawful.’ The Board observed that Holtec ‘is committed to going forward with the project’ by contracting directly with the plant owners," the decision read.
"The Board held that whether that option is ‘commercially viable’ was not an issue before the Board."
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
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