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State of New Mexico says nuclear waste project poses disproportionate risk, locals supportive

New Mexico’s Executive Branch and activist groups continued their fight against a nuclear waste repository proposed to be built near the Eddy-Lea county line while supporters touted promises of economic benefits to the region and southeast New Mexico’s role in addressing the nation’s nuclear waste.

The debate came during a Tuesday virtual public hearing hosted by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to seek public comments on an environmental impact statement (EIS) issued by the NRC for Holtec International’s application for a license to build a consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) that would temporarily hold spent nuclear fuel at the surface while a permanent underground repository is developed.

The draft EIS issued in March found the project would have “minimal” impact on the environment if it was allowed to be built and operated.

A second public hearing was scheduled via teleconference on July 9, with in-person meetings expected in August pending the COVID-19 health crisis.

The 40-year license application represented the first phase of the project, including 500 canisters of waste, but the entire project could comprise of 20 phases holding up to 173,000 metric tons of waste when complete.

All 20 phases were analyzed by the EIS, but not included in the first license application.

Canisters would be positioned in tunnels about 40 feet deep, and would be gradually cooled, reducing radiation.

Public comments already submitted during numerous 2018 NRC scoping meetings voiced concerns for transportation, the location near the Permian Basin oilfield, along with potential groundwater and soil contamination and the safety of the facility during an incident such as a fire or flood.

The EIS noted that spent nuclear fuel held in the canisters would be made up of ceramic pellets with no liquid that could leak into the environment.

The radioactive exposure to workers during impact-free transportation was below NRC standards, the report read, and the location was deemed to be safe.

Overall, the NRC found only “small” or unnoticeable environmental impacts of the project.

State officials and residents spoke at the meeting, with some voicing support as others cited “grave concerns” for the project they contended could become permanent although it was pitched as temporary.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham voiced opposition in the past, calling the proposal “economic malpractice” for the perceived risk it posed to local industries such as agriculture and oil and gas.

Opposition cites environmental risk of more nuclear waste in New Mexico

New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said New Mexico already holds risk associated with nuclear activities through Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories along with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and the URENCO nuclear enrichment facility near Eunice.

He said vulnerable populations reside near the proposed sight, many minority groups also reliant on groundwater that could be impacted by the project.

Cabinet Secretary of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department Sarah Cottrell Propst voiced similar concerns as Kenney, that the project could unduly impact New Mexicans by foisting nuclear waste onto the state.

“New Mexicans have shouldered a disproportionate burden of the waste associated from nuclear weapons development. Holtec is asking the NRC to have New Mexico shoulder more burden with the waste from nuclear generators,” Kenney said.

“The location suggested is in an area where people rely on groundwater and that is known for having sensitive karstic features.”

State Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-36) of Las Cruces expressed concerns that the project could be in operation for much longer than the 40 years stipulated in the license application.

He argued that the opposition from people outside of Eddy and Lea counties was valid as the transportation routes for the waste brought to the site passed throughout New Mexico and the nation.

Other state senators and representatives, mostly Republicans representing southeast New Mexico districts, were supportive of the project.

Steinborn introduced legislation during New Mexico’s January Legislative Session to increase state oversight of nuclear projects, but the bill was defeated in committee.

“The draft EIS cannot adequately analyze the long-term impacts of the project as there is no permanent repository. The application is for 40 years, but clearly the facility could be there much longer,” he said.

“And I have to take some exception when its characterized that outsiders’ opposition is not relevant. It is an issue for all New Mexicans.”

Camilla Feibelman, director of Rio Grande Chapter of Sierra Club said the project was not just an issue for southeast New Mexico to consider. She also argued that Holtec should be required to make financial assurances in case of an accident.

“We believe that this waste should be stored as close to its original site as possible,” she said. “New Mexicans should not be put at risk for any sum of money.”

Local leaders look to diversify economy through nuclear

Numerous local officials from Eddy and Lea counties voiced their backing of the project, citing the economic benefits and safety of the facility.

Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway argued in support of the project, citing the diversification he said the nuclear facility – along with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant – brings to the local economy known for heavy reliance on oil and gas production.

With the oil and gas industry’s recent collapse as prices plummeted below $0 per barrel for the first time in history in April amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Janway said the need for a diverse economy was obvious.

“One of the lessons we’ve learned is you always need to have a diverse economy,” he said. “It is clear our state also needs to have a diverse economy and we need to push for those alternatives. I strongly believe that this project will not harm any of our area’s other industries including oil and gas and ranching.”

City Councilor Mark Walterscheid contended that opposition to the project was not local and based on emotion, not fact.

“The science backs it up. The local government backs it up,” he said. “We understand in Carlsbad that there are people from other parts of the country who are opposed to the project. They’re opposed to it out of fear of nuclear. This is misguided.”

Eddy County Commissioner Ernie Carlsbad said the EIS proved that the Holtec facility would not be environmentally harmful and the project should be allowed to advance through the licensing process.

“It is our belief that the combination of nuclear, mining and oil and gas will bring our county to a better position during these turbulent times,” Carlson said. “I understand people have concerns, but the experts have already addressed these concerns and we need to move forward and let this project proceed.”

Lea County Commissioner Jonathan Sena said that although oil and gas has greatly benefited the region, growing the local nuclear economy could help protect the area from the boom and bust cycles of extractive industries.

He also pointed to an estimated $3 billion capital investment the project could bring to the region and up to $25 million in revenue shared with the State of New Mexico.

“What has been communicated by the environmental impact statement has encouraged me in my support for the project,” Sena said. “This project should be allowed to happen. We need an interim storage facility in southeast New Mexico. We all know the oil industry is cyclical. A town can’t be reliant on just one industry.”

Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb said he and the City of Hobbs were involved in the project from its inception through the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA), a consortium of Eddy and Lea counties and the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs that worked to develop and site the facility.

Cobb said his work with ELEA and the NRC’s report convinced him the project was safe.

“I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the transportation of spent nuclear fuel. I understand them, but they are not based in fact,” he said. “The cask designs are robust and safe. All the waste is stored within multiple layers of steel and lead. This is a safe project. I urge the NRC to approve the license to operate this facility.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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©2020 the Carlsbad Current-Argus (Carlsbad, N.M.)

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