Editorial: Critics should cool their jets on Holtec canisters

As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers Holtec International’s proposal to build an interim storage facility for spent utility fuel in southeast New Mexico, there’s a lot of fear surrounding the “n” word. As in nuclear.

And as in, “what if a terrorist targets the storage site? What if the train derails on the way? What if the canisters holding the nuclear fuel crack?”

We get it. Radiation is dangerous and residents and others are right to expect their government to be diligent and thorough when considering permitting this $2.4 billion project between Hobbs and Carlsbad. New Mexicans sickened by uranium mining and nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War just got a Congressional hearing, for heaven’s sake.

But southeast New Mexico is powered by nuclear expertise, with the WIPP storage facility, the $4 billion Urenco USA uranium enrichment plant, as well as a planned spent-fuel storage facility by Waste Control Specialists and French firm AREVA Inc. across the Texas line. Five public meetings on Holtec have given no reason to think it won’t be a positive addition to “nuclear alley.”

Look no further than the Sierra Club in San Onofre, home to a decommissioned power plant and a storage site similar to New Mexico’s – albeit next to the Pacific Ocean – to see these interim sites are a much safer option than what’s going on now, and likely the best option available. The environmental group is echoing Holtec’s position on sites, transit and canisters.

To be clear, what’s going on now is this: 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.

Holtec would put that waste in interim storage sites that are at grade; in New Mexico that’s at a 960-acre remote site between Carlsbad and Hobbs that is geologically stable with no potable aquifers. It will have a 672-acre security and safety buffer zone. And Holtec says over 25,000 shipments of 87,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel have been made worldwide with no injury.

But don’t just take it from the industry, take it from the environmentalists. Marni Magda, chair of the Angeles Chapter Sierra Club San Onofre Task Force, recently wrote in The Laguna Beach Independent about the discussion from 19 meetings over three years regarding oversight:

• The system is flush to the ground, less of a terrorist target.

• The stainless steel 5/8″-canisters (thin, and to be used in New Mexico) are superior to the heavy, stand-alone carbon steel cask system (thick, and in which a loose pin was discovered in San Onofre in February) because the canisters can be moved more easily and are therefore safer in transport out of the (utility site) cooling pools and in and out of the containers.

• The Angeles Chapter agrees with (San Onofre plant majority owner) Edison that the Holtec system is the best the industry can provide.

That rationale is not from an industry insider, but an environmentalist living with the risk of the nation’s current storage scheme who prefers living with a Holtec interim facility.

As Magda writes, “sadly, nothing will last the 10,000 years the fuel must be contained. We have a great deal of work ahead of us.” So rather than pulling another “what if” out of a hat, critics should focus on getting answers to the real questions for New Mexico from the federal government regarding Holtec: “Define ‘interim’ and where is the ‘permanent’ site?”

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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