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Editorial: NM, Holtec track records bury storage site worries

There are two ways to look at the proposal to license an interim storage facility in southeast New Mexico for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel from power plants:

• New Mexico, a poor minority-majority state, is once again destined to be the dumping ground for dangerous items no other state will take, and those items will be vulnerable to train wrecks, container leaks and terrorist attacks.

• Or New Mexico, a state with a high level of nuclear expertise and experience, is once again partnering with a company that has a decadeslong track record in the industry and is a leader when it comes to safety and security.

After five public meetings in recent weeks regarding the Holtec International plan for a new $2.4 billion underground storage site halfway between Hobbs and Carlsbad, there’s no reason to not go firmly with the latter.

The region from just east of Carlsbad north toward Hobbs and south to Eunice is known informally as the nuclear triangle for a reason. There’s the WIPP storage facility, the $4 billion Urenco USA uranium enrichment plant, as well as a planned spent-fuel storage facility run by Waste Control Specialists and French firm AREVA Inc. just across the Texas state line.

The Eddy Lea Energy Alliance – Eddy and Lea counties as well as Carlsbad and Hobbs – is partnering with Holtec on the project. It says Holtec excelled in the RFI process.

Holtec has been in business for more than 30 years. Its corporate headquarters are in Florida, but its operations span the globe, from San Diego to New Jersey, the Ukraine to Dubai. More than 100 nuclear plants worldwide are under contract to use its dry storage systems. Its containers can withstand direct artillery strikes and the potential impact of two rail cars smashing head-on into each other at 60 mph. They are stored in concrete cavities that can survive a crashing aircraft or missile attack. The proposed 960-acre site between Carlsbad and Hobbs is remote and geologically stable with no potable aquifers. It will have a 672-acre security and safety buffer zone. To date more than 25,000 shipments of 87,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel have been made worldwide with no injury.

Yet just a whisper of this “n-word” – nuclear – and folks get anxious. Last week more than 100 people crammed into an hourslong meeting in Albuquerque to voice concerns to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which would license the project. (The NRC comment period ends today.) Yes, incorrectly handled and stored nuclear power and waste are the things movies and nightmares can be made of, from “China Syndrome” to Chernobyl, “Silkwood” to Fukushima. The Holtec project promises a way out of potential disasters. Right now more than 70,000 metric tons of used reactor fuel from power plants are stored in 73 different sites across 39 states, some next to rivers or atop water tables. Taxpayers pay to guard these sites, energy companies have gotten more than $5 billion in settlements because the feds have yet to open Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository, and D.C. spends $500 million to $600 million annually defending itself against such lawsuits.

And while things seem to be moving on getting the $15 billion Yucca Mountain parking garage open in Nevada, Holtec is offering a safer, more cost-effective near- and mid-term plan.

This project will free up state and federal dollars by eliminating much legal wrangling. It will add $42.4 billion in capital investment and 240 jobs – and as the alliance points out that can be on either the N.M. or Texas side of the state line.

Yes, temporary can mean permanent in a bureaucracy. But under the site licensing the multilayer storage canisters are certified to last 40 years, can be renewed for another 40 years and will be evaluated for aging; overall, they are expected to last 200 to 300 years. As for the rest, Holtec and southeast New Mexico have shown repeatedly that they have the expertise and experience to help ensure a safe and secure nuclear future.

The NRC should let them expand on that.

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.

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