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The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has recommended issuing a license to Holtec International for its proposed nuclear waste storage facility on 1,000 acres halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs.
The facility would house stainless steel canisters of spent nuclear fuel underground until the U.S. Department of Energy decides on a permanent repository location.
The NRC on Tuesday released a draft environmental impact statement for the project’s initial phase, a $230 million construction of the facility and storage of 8,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel in 500 canisters. The full project would cost $2.4 billion and store 10,000 canisters.
The document says the impacts on land, industry and public health would be minimal, even if an accident occurred during transport of the canisters.
In an emailed statement, Holtec President and CEO Kris Singh said the document is a “major regulatory milestone.”
“The draft environmental impact statement confirms the NRC’s confidence in the safety and security of the (facility) and the fact that the facility presents no impact to the environment, oil and gas industry, or the ranching and farming industries,” Singh said.
A 60-day public comment period on the document will begin once a notice is published in the Federal Register. NRC staff will host public meetings in New Mexico during that comment period, but meeting dates have not yet been announced.
The impact statement says “oil and gas exploration could coexist with Holtec’s proposed project.”
To transport spent fuel from the nation’s nuclear facilities, sealed canisters filled with uranium fuel rods would travel to southeast New Mexico by rail on specially designed railcars. Holtec would build a five-mile private railroad spur on Bureau of Land Management land to connect the existing rail line to the project site.
The canisters will then be placed underground in concrete silos at a maximum depth of 50 feet. If the federal government determines a permanent storage site for nuclear waste, the canisters will be removed and shipped again by rail.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard have opposed the facility, citing concern about the environment and the economy. But southeast New Mexico leaders say it will be safe and good for the local economy. Holtec purchased the land from the Lea-Eddy Energy Alliance, which has supported the project.
The report estimates radiation impacts for typical transport of the canisters and in case of an incident.
“Releases of SNF (spent nuclear fuel) would not be expected from the proposed SNF shipments under accident conditions,” the report reads.
Radiation from handling and storing the canisters would be small and within federal standards, according to the document.
The project area is currently used for cattle grazing. The surrounding region is used for potash mining, and oil and gas extraction. There are 18 plugged oil and gas wells in the project area, and no water wells. Most impacts, such as soil disturbance, would occur during facility construction, the document said.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.