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Nuclear fuel storage plan sparks fears

CARLSBAD – Noel Marquez is fearful of radioactive material in his backyard.

The community artist from Artesia said an interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel rods, proposed to be built between Carlsbad and Hobbs, could increase the danger for the communities that live nearby.

He said residents impacted by the project need to speak up.

“A lot of the community lives along the railroad tracks,” he said. “They’re the ones that are going to get exposed. Women are going to suffer more, children and the unborn.”

Marquez pointed to an accidental radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in 2014, which shuttered the permanent repository for transuranic waste about 25 miles from Carlsbad for about three years.

He said human error caused the incident at WIPP and could lead to more danger for the people of southeast New Mexico if the proposed facility become active.

“You can call it whatever you want, but in the end, it was a very bad mistake by a human,” Marquez said.

He was one of about 10 concerned residents from Eddy County and across New Mexico who spoke in opposition to the project proposed by Holtec International and the Eddy/Lea Energy Alliance, during a Saturday community forum at the Carlsbad Public Library.

Before public comments, anonymous questions were taken by a four-person panel of local officials including New Mexico Rep. Cathrynn Brown, Eddy County Commissioner James Walterscheid and Carlsbad City Councilors Jason Shirley and Mark Walterscheid.

In total, about 50 people attended the meeting.

Brown pointed to the arid climate and remote location of southeast New Mexico as ideal for the repository.

“This is a controversial subject. Anything nuclear is going to be controversial,” she said. “We’ve been living with it for a long time. I don’t fear it. It’s like anything in life. Everything has some risk. Let’s look at all aspects, the pros and cons. Let’s try to turn off our bias switches.”

Holtec’s application for the project was recently accepted by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a milestone toward licensing the project for construction and operation.

The NRC announced Friday that there will be three public meetings on the project in New Mexico, and a public comment period was announced by the Federal Register through May 29.

The storage facility would ultimately hold about 120,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel rods taken from nuclear power plants across the country.

The waste would be held at Holtec until a permanent repository can be developed.