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Editorial: Southeast NM could lead in nuclear waste storage

At some point the leaders of the free world are going to have to stop kicking the radiation canister down the road and pick a real nuclear waste storage site.

Because continuing to allow the nation’s nuclear waste to be kept in temporary facilities in 39 states – some sites adjacent to rivers or on top of water tables – is irresponsible at best.

For the second time in three years, southeastern New Mexico has stepped up to offer an arid, sparsely populated, underground site for some of the country’s more than 70,000 metric tons of used reactor fuel. Lea and Eddy counties and the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs have signed a memorandum of agreement with Holtec International Inc.

The company already owns the 32 acres the proposed depository would sit on, will cover the $80 million licensing process and $200 million in first-phase building operations, and could expand to equal all the planned storage capacity at the politically shuttered $15 billion Yucca Mountain storage site.

Despite widespread support by those who live in the area, New Mexico’s senators in Washington, D.C., are against private enterprise investing hundreds of millions of dollars in their state and on behalf of their nation’s security. It’s disappointing but not surprising; their former majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has kept underground storage facility Yucca Mountain in limbo for decades, using various appointment and appropriation movidas to keep its 2008 licensing application on hold at a $15 billion cost to taxpayers.

Sen. Martin Heinrich wants to delay any interim site here “until we are sure that there will be a path forward to permanent disposal.” And Sen. Tom Udall says, “I don’t think we should be talking about this at all while the state and the Department of Energy are still addressing the serious accident and radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.”

Yet both must know the Holtec “interim” site is designed for 100-year storage, that a “path forward to permanent disposal” has been blocked by Reid and that a significant, non-carbon-producing energy source continues to churn out radioactive waste from power plants across the nation, and that waste has to go somewhere.

On the same day Heinrich and Udall voiced their opposition, the state and DOE cut a $73 million deal regarding WIPP and agreed the problems that led to the radiation release – and low levels of contamination – occurred at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the canisters were packed, not at WIPP, where they were stored.

That Holtec has a 35-year safety record in this business and uses containers that can withstand direct artillery strikes and the potential impact of two rail cars smashing head-on into each other at 60 mph, and that those containers in turn will be stored in concrete cavities that can withstand a crashing aircraft or a missile attack, speaks to the safety and security of the proposed operation and should allay WIPP leak critics.

And that a company considered a major player in the global spent-fuel storage industry is interested in southeastern New Mexico speaks to the region’s terrain and expertise. The proposed site is dry and desolate, situated between Carlsbad and Hobbs, about 12 miles north of WIPP and in the so-called nuclear alley that includes the $4 billion Urenco USA uranium enrichment plant in Eunice, a proposed $100 million International Isotopes plant to process spent uranium from the Urenco plant, and a proposed spent-fuel storage facility run by Waste Control Specialists and French firm AREVA Inc just across the Texas state line. (It’s of note AREVA wanted to partner with southeastern New Mexico in 2012 but has since decided the grass is greener in Texas and will instead be competing with New Mexico and Holtec.)

Licensing the Holtec site is expected to take at least three years, and legal clarification is needed on allowing the company to transport and store spent fuel at an interim site. Heinrich and Udall could take leadership roles and ensure New Mexico is at the forefront of this part of the new energy economy – as they have done with wind and solar.

Or they can stick with the group that keeps kicking the radiation canister down the road.

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.