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Editorial: Now’s the time to air concerns about nuke site

Southeastern New Mexico has provided a safe, long-term storage solution to the tens of thousands of metric tons of radioactive waste our nation has left lying around. The region east of Carlsbad north toward Hobbs and south to Eunice has a triangle of nuclear experience.

There’s the recently re-opened WIPP storage facility (closed because of problems that occurred at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where canisters were packed) and a just-inked deal for a spent-fuel storage facility run by Waste Control Specialists and French firm AREVA Inc. just across the Texas line. The nearby $4 billion Urenco USA uranium enrichment plant adds to the expertise.

So it is understandable Lea and Eddy counties and the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs have a memorandum of agreement with Holtec International Inc. for a new $280-million-plus underground storage site for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel — which is currently stored in casks at nuclear power plants around the country — until a permanent repository is built. Nobody understands this is serious business better than the residents who live next to and work in nuclear facilities.

Yet it is important officials ensure due diligence is done. State Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, has sent a battery of questions to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the state attorney general, the state Environment Department and other state agencies about the project. That’s appropriate; we are within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s 60-day public comment period on Holtec’s site licensing application (it closes May 29).

As comments come in, it is just as important to note Holtec has a 35-plus-year safety record. That it uses containers that can withstand direct artillery strikes and the potential impact of two rail cars smashing head-on into each other at 60 mph. That containers will be stored in concrete cavities that can withstand a crashing aircraft or a missile attack. That the 960-acre site between Carlsbad and Hobbs will have a 672-acre security and safety buffer zone. And that southeastern New Mexico has demonstrated the expertise and inclination to step up and clean up our nation’s nuclear mess. For decades the White House and Congress have let Nevada’s Yucca Mountain nuclear storage facility remain the world’s most expensive empty parking garage, plowing $15 billion into a hole that has yet to take a thimble of waste.

Yet tens of thousands of metric tons of radioactive waste are simply lying around the nation – literally. Just last week a barrel of radioactive sludge from the Rocky Flats plant near Denver ruptured at the Idaho National Laboratory site. It was headed to WIPP. More than 70,000 metric tons of used reactor fuel are in temporary facilities in 39 states, some next to rivers or atop water tables.

Where was the due diligence for those residents?

Critics should question a new nuclear project’s safety. And folks who want the waste stored “somewhere else” should know that’s too often in less-than-ideal locations.

The nuclear industry has been operating safely in southeastern New Mexico for decades, and residents appear ready to take on another important site. With successful due diligence, New Mexico is an appropriate place for the Holtec project.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.