A group of organizations from around the country filed an appeal in federal court calling for a review of federal regulators’ denial of multiple contentions made against a temporary nuclear waste storage facility proposed to be built near Carlsbad and Hobbs.
The appeal was filed on Monday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit against a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) order in April that denied the standing and relevance of contentions against the facility’s license application submitted to the NRC by Holtec International.
Holtec proposed building and operating a consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) to hold high-level spent nuclear fuel rods at the surface in a remote location near the Eddy-Lea county line on a temporary basis while a permanent repository was developed.
In total, the proposed facility could hold up to 173,00 metric tons of waste.
A permanent repository does not exist nor is one in development as a proposal for such a facility in Yucca Mountain, Nevada was de-funded in 2011 under the administration of former-President Barrack Obama.
Opponents of the Holtec facility warned that the repository could become permanent and posed a risk to public safety not only near the site but along the rail transport routes that would bring the waste to New Mexico from generator sites throughout the nation.
The shipments, up to 10,000 carrying the waste, could travel through up to 45 states before being placed into storage at Holtec, records show.
Supporters, mostly in the local communities closest to the proposed site, touted the economic benefits Holtec could bring to the area in diversifying its economy away from its sole reliance on the oil and gas industry.
Led by non-profit Don’t Waste Michigan, the coalition of groups appealing the NRC’s order spanned seven states including New Mexico which was represented by the Nuclear Issues Studies Group based in Albuquerque.
The group appealed seven contentions previously made in federal court but denied by the NRC including an alleged lack of consideration for historic and cultural properties near the proposed site, an insufficient assurance of financing by Holtec for the project including bonding in case of an emergency and the application’s “underestimation” of the volume of waste that would be stored.
It also called for the NRC to hold at least 24 meetings on the project in states across the country that could be impacted by the project.
Other contentions accused the NRC of an inadequate review of the transportation routes, a lack of a “significant risk assessment” as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and charged that the proposal does not include adequate safety oversight during development and operations of the CISF.
Molly Johnson, board member of San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace of California said the proposal would send nuclear waste unfairly to a low-income and minority community.
She advocated for storing the waste at or nearby generator sites until a permanent repository was made available.
“The proposal to transport high-level radioactive waste to a poor community of color in southeast New Mexico as a ‘temporary’ storage solution is dangerous and irrational,” Johnson said. “San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace advocates for storing waste at or as close as possible to the site of generation until a science-based permanent solution can be determined.”
Barbara Warren, executive director of Citizens’ Environmental Coalition of New York said the NRC had not adequately studied the safety issues she alleged would arise during the waste’s transportation.
“Multiple New York activists share serious concerns with our friends in New Mexico about the deficient environmental review for the long-term storage of nuclear waste that will be hazardous for millions of years,” Warren said. “NRC has not required controls adequate to handle both short-term and long-term hazards for this dangerously radioactive irradiated nuclear fuel.”
New Mexico activists also voiced their concerns as Leona Morgan with the Nuclear Issues Study Group said the proposal could lead to her state unduly taking on the burden of the nation’s nuclear waste.
She said the issue was of national concern beyond the opinions of local government in the proposed area of the site.
“The proposal to make New Mexico a national sacrifice zone includes tens of thousands of rail shipments of irradiated nuclear fuel and may be one of the most dramatic long-term transport efforts in the history of the United States,” Morgan said.
“We’re joining six other organizations in a total of five states to challenge the federal government demanding that the 200 million people living within 50 miles of rail corridors have a say in this decision to allow deadly radioactive waste to come through their communities.”
John Heaton, chairman of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a consortium including the local governments of the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs and Eddy and Lea counties that worked on developing the project and supporting the licensing project, pointed the NRC’s recent environmental impact statement (EIS) that found the project would have minimal environmental impact.
“They didn’t see any rational reason to not go forward and license the project,” he said. “If there is something significant, we’d like to hear it.”
He said the project was safe and could help protect southeast New Mexico from the economic volatility created by its reliance on extraction.
“We’ve always seen the ups and downs in the oil and gas industry,” Heaton said. “That is one of the main reasons we were looking at a safe nuclear project. This is about as benign a project as you could think of.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
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