The Obama administration's call for solutions to the country's nuclear waste problems got a response yesterday from a company proposing the construction of an underground storage facility in southeastern New Mexico to store casks of used fuel.
Holtec International Inc. announced its proposal at an Albuquerque news conference alongside officials from two counties -- Eddy and Lea -- which have a combined population of about 110,000 people in New Mexico's "nuclear corridor."
Holtec President and CEO Kris Singh said the project's underground cavities could store waste in canisters for a century. The $5 billion venture, he said, will use technology that has been tested around the world.
"It has no reaction with the environment. Zero," he said. "In terms of accidents created by man ... it's essentially immune."
The project's endorsed by Gov. Susana Martinez, a rising star in the Republican Party, who touted the project in a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz earlier this month. She cited the site's arid, isolated location and support from surrounding communities with a history of managing projects like the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad.
"There is a significant and growing national need for such an interim facility," Martinez wrote. "Millions of taxpayer dollars are currently being spent on monitoring and oversight of spent fuel each year, and millions more are being spent on settlement payments related to waste disposition."
But New Mexico's Democratic senators were less enthusiastic.
Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall said they would prefer that a permanent, national waste repository be sited before New Mexico embraces highly radioactive material.
Heinrich in a statement said southeastern New Mexico should be commended for its leadership in the nuclear industry, but cautioned, "We can't put the cart before the horse."
"I cannot support establishing an interim storage facility until we are sure there will be a path forward to permanent disposal," he said. "There must be an open and transparent process that allows for input on what's best for our entire state."
Udall called the discussion "premature" amid the Department of Energy's investigation into a radioactive leak at WIPP. An independent board appointed by DOE earlier this month found the accident was "preventable" and that the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which ships nuclear waste to the site, did not implement the proper packing and treatment procedures for its waste (E&ENews PM, April 16).
"I'm not comfortable supporting anything in New Mexico until I know what's on the table, and regardless, this conversation is premature," the senator said. "We shouldn't be talking about this while the state and DOE are still addressing the serious accident and radiation release at WIPP."
Udall said his primary focus is on reopening WIPP safely and protecting workers, adding that he fought to ensure the site did not accept high-level waste when it was first opened. Any future nuclear waste mission, he said, would need broad support throughout the state before he would consider supporting it.
"It's putting a dangerous cart ahead of the horse to build an interim disposal site without a plan for permanent disposal -- whether the site is built in New Mexico or anywhere else in the country," he said. "The Blue Ribbon Commission report said such sites need to move in 'parallel,' and I am very concerned about the risk that nuclear waste could be orphaned at a site that was not designed for permanent storage."
While Holtec's Singh said the company had overcome technological challenges, he was unable to offer similar assurances on the political front. Singh said it would require support from all levels of government -- federal, state and local -- and from Congress and the executive branch.
"These people operate in policy areas that are way above my pay grade," Singh said.
'You've got your work cut out for you'
Singh also acknowledged that there are competing locations for storage sites and that DOE would need to be involved.
Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists LLC has proposed building the nation's first private, temporary storage site for spent reactor fuel in an arid corner of West Texas. The company is slated to ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission next year for a license to build an interim storage site in Andrews County, about 350 miles west of Dallas (Greenwire, Feb. 9).
Moniz told a Senate hearing last month that the Texas proposal was "extremely interesting" and that he was keen to learn more.
Singh said Holtec would submit its application to NRC in about a year and that the project could transition from a pilot to a commercial venture.
He also said the interim storage facility, the details of which are still being worked out, fits "perfectly" within the Obama administration's waste strategy.
The administration is open to alternatives for storing waste after deciding in 2010 to abandon the decades-long effort to open a nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain, Nev., in the face of fierce political and legal opposition. A commission appointed by President Obama to study the nation's nuclear-waste dilemma later recommended that the nation move beyond the Yucca Mountain mess and come up with a workable long-term plan for waste disposal.
Moniz in March announced that DOE would begin identifying and vetting a defense-waste-only repository and separate sites for one or more interim facilities for old fuel from shuttered reactors. But Moniz also made clear that DOE will need congressional approval -- and more authority -- to actually build the facilities (E&ENews PM, March 24).
In New Mexico, the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a consortium of city and county governments, has been advocating the proposed interim storage site for years, noting that it's a national security issue and no one else wants the waste (Greenwire, Feb. 3, 2012).
John Heaton, a special energy assistant to the mayor of Carlsbad, said the alliance has met with stakeholders, industry and the NRC to vet the project. Securing an NRC license, he added, could take three years. He also said he expects the arrangement would lead to incentives for the state and host communities.
But at least one comment at the press conference signaled that the public -- or at least environmental groups -- will take convincing.
One commenter asked how residents near transportation routes leading to the site would be included in the dialogue. Heaton responded that trucks heading to WIPP are under close surveillance and accidents are rare to nil.
"Those are the kinds of things we expect to play on when we go through the rail adoption system," Heaton said, adding that the waste would be transported by rail in dry casks. "We're going to have to go to community to community and state by state just like we did with the WIPP project."
Singh added that residents would not only be consulted but informed about the risks. "I understand people who live in the vicinity of the rail line want to know the concerns," he said. "Anything that will come down the railroad here ... is going to be safer passing through any neighborhood than the standard industrial cargo."
The commenter was unmoved, saying, "You've got your work cut out for you."
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