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Holtec defends plan for nuclear waste storage facility

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Holtec International addressed concerns raised by environmental groups during the second day of a federal hearing in Albuquerque on Thursday, but not to the satisfaction of many of the parties opposing the company’s planned interim storage site for spent nuclear fuel in southeast New Mexico.

“They’re engaging in delusional, magical thinking,” said Michael Keegan of Don’t Waste Michigan, one of the petitioners represented at the hearing.

Keegan referred to Holtec’s responses to some of the questions posed by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.

“Can a leaking canister be repaired?” judge Nicholas Tikouros asked.

“The answer is, that is outside the scope because there are no credible leak threats,” answered Holtec counsel Jay Silberg, causing jeers and laughter from the audience of around 60 people.

According to the company, none of its existing canisters have ever leaked.

Silberg followed that by saying, hypothetically, if a canister did have a leak, it could be encapsulated by another intact canister.

Holtec similarly dismissed other concerns, including a Sierra Club contention that subsidence at the site between Carlsbad and Hobbs could damage waste-laden casks.

“… We do not believe there will be subsidence at the site,” said Holtec attorney Anne Leidich, who said research indicates there is no historical evidence of subsidence occurring at the 1,000-acre site.

Holtec said in a news release released Thursday afternoon that it does not believe any of the parties’ contentions had merit.

“Neither the (board’s) questions nor the parties’ responses raised any new issues as to the technical merits of Holtec’s HI-STORE application submitted to the (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) in March 2017,” the release said. “The opponents’ responses were largely hypothetical and speculative statements rather than ones based on sound science and appropriate legal standards.”

Holtec did concur with opponents that the U.S. Department of Energy cannot take ownership of the radioactive waste under current law, which stipulates there must be a permanent repository in place before the DOE can do so.

If the federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act is not altered or a permanent repository is not constructed in the meantime, Silberg said the plan will still be viable if electric utilities retain title to the waste.

“Right now, as we discussed this morning, DOE can’t own the fuel,” Silberg said during a break at Thursday’s proceedings. “They’re not authorized. But the argument that somehow listing DOE as one of the possibilities makes the whole deal illegal is just crazy.”

But opponents questioned the validity of the project should the law not be changed.

“The electric utilities are wanting to move (spent nuclear fuel) to this location to get rid of liability,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of special projects with Public Citizen, another petitioner. “So, the question then becomes are they willing to retain the liability when it’s offsite and maintained by a third party?”

Thursday was the final day of the hearing.

The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board will now determine which contentions raised, if any, will be considered during future, more substantial, hearings in the next few months.