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Hearings on nuclear waste facility to start today

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hear concerns about a proposed interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in southeastern New Mexico today in Albuquerque.

The commission’s three-man Atomic Safety and Licensing Board will hear contentions from attorneys representing environmental groups from around the country, as well as an oil company and a competing nuclear waste storage company.

Holtec International applied for a license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to construct and operate the facility near Carlsbad in 2017.

The goal of today’s hearing, which will continue until Thursday, if necessary, is for the board to whittle down concerns from groups to those that will be heard later in more substantial hearings that include expert testimony and counter-examination.

“Essentially, you have to show there’s a real dispute between Holtec and the other organizations,” said Mindy Goldstein of Emory University’s Turner Environmental Law Clinic and who is representing Beyond Nuclear at the hearing.

Out of the dozens of contentions likely to be raised, Goldstein’s is one of the simplest: She argues Holtec’s plan is illegal. Namely, the plan violates the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which addresses how the country will dispose of its nuclear waste.

“(The Nuclear Waste Policy Act) says the private companies that generated the waste are responsible for it until it goes underground,” Goldstein said Tuesday during a meeting with Journal editors and reporters. “The application that Holtec has submitted on its face violates the Nuclear Waste Policy Act because what this says is at this interim storage facility we’re going to have the federal government take ownership and responsibility for this waste.”

Goldstein said the board will likely decide in March which contentions can move forward to the next stage of hearings.

After those hearings, the board will make recommendations to the NRC on how to proceed. If the NRC approves the application, opponents may file suit with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Contentions by other groups include public safety, and environmental concerns and environmental justice issues.

Terry Lodge, an attorney representing several groups, said Tuesday that fracking in the area of the proposed site is one concern he will raise.

Lodge also said Holtec does not have a method for dealing with canisters of waste that arrive at the facility damaged. Instead, Holtec will employ a “return to sender” approach, he said.

Holtec will have its own counsel at today’s hearing.

“We look forward to answering the judges’ questions and demonstrating that the opponents have failed to meet the NRC’s standards that would justify a hearing,” said Joy Russell, Holtec senior vice president of communications, in a written statement. “Notwithstanding the opponents’ claims, our position has always focused on designing, constructing and operating an interim spent fuel storage facility that is safe for the environment, and benefits our clients and this country. Any assertations to the contrary ignore the scientific, technical, and engineering work, which is the basis of the … project.”

The hearing is open to the public and will begin at 9 a.m. at the State Bar of New Mexico at 5121 Masthead NE.

There is currently no option for permanent disposal of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel generated by nuclear power plants.

Holtec is proposing to build a facility that would temporarily store the waste until a permanent underground repository is built.