It’s not often we get a news release from U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ted Cruz. But, on the issue of “interim” storage of nuclear waste, the N.M. Democrat and Texas Republican are spot on: We need a permanent solution.
But we also need an answer about safe interim storage. And, to date, Congress has failed to deliver either.
Thanks in large part to former Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who was successful in drying up funding for the $15 billion Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in his state, there is nowhere in the nation to transfer around 86,000 metric tons of used reactor fuel from power plants. So, the spent nuclear fuel is scattered across 75 different sites in 33 states, some of it next to rivers or atop water tables.
And it grows by an estimated 2,000 metric tons each and every year, saddling the federal government with an estimated $30 billion liability.
Private companies Holtec International and Interim Storage Partners have submitted license applications to construct and operate consolidated interim nuclear waste storage facilities — Holtec in Southeast New Mexico, ISP in Andrews County, Texas, in the Permian Basin region. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already granted a license to ISP and is expecting to release its licensing decision on Holtec’s facility in the coming months.
In the meantime, Heinrich and Cruz have introduced legislation in a bid to prevent private interim nuclear waste storage sites from becoming de facto permanent facilities. U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, a Democrat, and Texas U.S. Rep. August Pfluger, a Republican, have introduced similar legislation in the U.S. House. (U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján and U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, both N.M. Democrats, are original cosponsors in their respective chambers.) The bipartisan, bicameral legislation would prohibit interim storage facilities owned or operated by private companies from receiving payments — potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars — through the federal Judgment Fund until a permanent repository is available.
The lawmakers are right — just look at where the waste is sitting right now — it’s far too easy for temporary to become permanent.
But, until we have a permanent facility, we need safe temporary storage areas. That’s where Holtec comes in.
Holtec plans to build a $2.4 billion consolidated interim nuclear waste storage facility between Carlsbad and Hobbs, and its spokesman says it isn’t receiving any federal funding. Spokesperson Gerges Scott says “(W)e’re still trying to figure out what the bill is trying to do.”
Meanwhile, Congress is what’s been holding back a permanent storage site.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 requires the secretary of Energy to establish a repository for permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel, subject to licensing and regulation by the NRC. But it’s up to Congress to approve funding.
A Blue Ribbon Commission under President Barack Obama said a decade ago there was an urgent need to construct a consolidated geological repository for nuclear waste after Congress ended funding for Yucca Mountain’s deep geological repository in 2011. Under President Donald Trump, the Department of Energy ended deep borehole and other non–Yucca Mountain waste disposition research activities.
Last fall, the Government Accountability Office stated congressional action was needed to break an impasse and develop a permanent solution for spent nuclear fuel. Cruz acknowledges this, saying “Congress needs to implement permanent nuclear waste solutions, not settle for interim storage that concerns Texas communities.”
Yet, the well-intentioned proposed legislation at best supports the untenable status quo.
Holtec’s multilayer stainless-steel storage canisters provide a needed alternative. But, even though they are certified to last 40 years, can be renewed for another 40 and last 200-300 years, Heinrich is right: Temporary nuclear storage in New Mexico should be just that — temporary.
Congress and the Biden administration must finally deliver on the federal government’s obligation to provide a permanent nuclear waste repository. N.M.’s delegation should demand it.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.