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Nuclear power plant waste headed to NM?

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Holtec International Inc. — a global firm that makes storage canisters for spent nuclear fuel —  proposes to build the world’s first “interim” depository for waste from U.S. power plants in southeastern New Mexico.

The company has signed a memorandum of agreement with the Eddy-Lea County Energy Alliance to seek needed federal licenses to build the facility on 32 acres currently owned by the alliance. The alliance includes the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs and both county governments. Holtec expects to invest about $80 million in the licensing process, and $200 million to build the first phase of the storage site, said Holtec Senior Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer Pierre Oneid. That would be enough space to house about 6 percent of all the canisters in the U.S. that now hold spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors at power plants nationwide.

The facility would expand as the volume of waste shipped to it grows, potentially providing enough space to equal all the planned storage capacity at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, where the federal government dropped plans for a repository in 2009.

“Depending on volume, the investment in New Mexico could grow to more than $1 billion,” Oneid told the Journal. “We’d employ a couple of hundred people in construction, and about 50 permanent employees in the first phase of operation. That could grow to 150 as the storage facility expands.”

The site would be about 12 miles north of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant where low-level radioactive waste from federal facilities is stored in deep underground salt beds.

However, the licensing and permitting process could take time, given that it would be the nation’s first interim depository for spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors.

“This is just the beginning,” said John Heaton, a former Democratic state representative from Carlsbad and now the alliance chair. “Licensing will take a least three years, and we have yet to put the application together.”

Heaton announced the project Wednesday with other Alliance leaders and Holtec representatives at a news conference at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque.

Holtec must submit  both a safety analysis  and an environmental impact report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other federal agencies, said Holtec President and CEO Kris Singh.

“The safety analysis is a 2,000-page document, or longer,” Singh said. “That all has to go through the review cycle, and then it will be opened up to the general public for comments and questions.”

The project also must receive state permits from the Environment Department, although Gov. Susana Martinez has already taken a strong position in support of the storage facility. The governor sent a letter to U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on April 10 backing the proposal and emphasizing the community support for the project shown by the alliance.

“The recent decision by your administration to adopt a consent-based approach for waste management should highlight areas such as southeastern New Mexico where there is broad support in the region for such an endeavor,” Martinez said in the letter.

Still, environmental groups are likely to oppose the storage site, especially after the radiation leak last year from drums stored at WIPP, which has temporarily shut the facility down.

Janet Greenwald of Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping questioned the safety of Holtec’s plan to ship caskets of waste from reactors nationwide to New Mexico. Before WIPP was opened in 1999, for example, community concern about nuclear waste shipped through Santa Fe led to the construction of the Santa Fe Relief Route to keep trucks from traveling through the city, Greenwald said.

“New Mexicans have opposed high-level waste coming into the state over and over again,” Greenwald told the Journal. “I don’t think getting consensus on this will be an easy task.”

Still, Heaton said such concerns will be addressed throughout the licensing process, and that Holtec and the alliance will work together to educate the public about the storage facility. “We’ll go community by community and state by state where the rail lines run to get input at all levels and resolve the process as we go,” Heaton said.

Singh said Holtec’s casket technology has been extensively tested for safety, with the containers withstanding direct artillery strikes and the potential impact of two rail cars smashing head on into one another at 60 miles per hour. The stainless steel canisters, which are fully licensed by the NRC, have already been deployed at many nuclear facilities nationwide where spent fuel is now stored on site.

“We have a 35-year safety record of dry canister storage in the U.S. without a single significant incident,” Oneid said.

In addition, at the New Mexico storage site, all the canisters will be stored below ground in a 30-foot thick concrete monolith. Each cavity that holds a cask will be lined with a thick steel shell that can withstand a crashing aircraft or a missile attack, Oneid said.

In effect, the facility will have no environmental impact, Singh added.

“It has no interaction with the environment — zero,” he said. “There is no pollution of water and no emissions into the environment. It’s absolutely environmentally benign.”

Holtec chose southeast New Mexico because it provides an ideal location for the project.

“New Mexico has excellent terrain, a dry climate, and a very low water table,” Singh said. “There’s not a blade of grass growing in that area. It’s a great place for a safe and secure storage facility.”

Alliance members said they have worked to promote a nuclear waste storage facility in the area for years as part of the two counties’ efforts to diversify the local economy and move away from dependence on the oil and gas industry. They seek to build a network of nuclear industry-related facilities that provide good-paying jobs and increased tax revenue. Apart from WIPP, that includes a $4 billion uranium enrichment plant that Urenco USA now operates in Eunice, plus a project by the Idaho company International Isotopes to build a $100 million plant in Hobbs to process spent uranium from the Urenco facility.

“The storage facility would be a natural complement to the WIPP site and the next phase of building the nuclear corridor in Southeast New Mexico,” said Jack Volpato, former Eddy County commissioner and now president of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a way to diversify our economy as the oil and gas industry goes south.”

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