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Southeast NM presses pursuit of nuclear corridor

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

With URENCO USA’s uranium enrichment plant ramping up and a new plan to build an interim storage site for spent nuclear fuel near Carlsbad, efforts by southeast New Mexico to attract nuclear-related projects are back on the front burner.

John Heaton, a former Democratic state representative and now chair of the Eddy-Lea County Energy Alliance, says the proposed storage site could be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of new nuclear-related business in the area. The Alliance and Holtec International – a global firm that makes storage canisters for spent nuclear fuel – jointly announced the initiative in late April.

“We see a number of potential spinoffs from that project,” Heaton told the Journal. “It’s more than just the storage site itself.”

Holtec and the Alliance want to turn the project into a training center for spent-fuel management to send technicians around the world to help establish and manage more facilities. And they want to compete for U.S. Department of Energy research grants to study and test everything from the longevity of canisters that hold spent fuel to the potential for recycling fuel for re-use in nuclear plants.

“With technology advancing quickly, in 10 to 20 years, spent fuel could become fuel for new types of reactors,” Heaton said. “We could repackage it here with reprocessing and recycling activities.”

But those plans and others face many hurdles, starting with opposition by environmentalists and doubts about whether the storage site will ever get licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission or win management contracts from the Department of Energy.

“I think these are serious efforts that make you glad if you support them, but that make you concerned if you worry about environmental impacts,” said Don Hancock, director of the Southwest Research and Information Center’s Nuclear Waste Program. “People need to know that southeast New Mexico is pushing this. But I don’t think the interim storage project will ever happen and many other ideas that they’re pursuing are just not going to work.”

Lea and Eddy counties have worked to attract the nuclear industry for more than a decade to diversify the region’s economy and reduce its dependency on oil and gas.

After the opening in 1999 of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant project near Carlsbad for low-level radioactive waste from federal facilities, plus the construction of the URENCO facility starting in 2006, it seemed like the southeast’s nuclear corridor was taking off. Local enthusiasm was especially fueled by what many saw as a “nuclear renaissance” worldwide in the first decade of the new century, with plans for a wave of new nuclear power plants in the U.S. and other countries.

But the renaissance has come to a halt since 2011, in part because of public backlash against nuclear power following the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant that year, as well as the U.S.’s newfound shale-gas revolution. An unprecedented surge in domestic natural gas production thanks to modern drilling technologies has driven costs down for natural gas-fired electric generation. As a result, gas plants are now rapidly replacing aging coal-fired plants and utilities are shunning new nuclear power projects, given their astronomical costs.

In the U.S., only five new nuclear reactors are under construction, in Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina, barely replacing four power plants that have been either decommissioned or are scheduled for shutdown.

In addition, industry enthusiasm for building new “small modular reactors” – tiny nuclear plants that would provide power for cities or local communities at a fraction of the cost for building today’s mammoth generating stations – has dissipated because the technology and its economics must yet be proved. Commercial deployment of the first one is at least five to ten years off.

Uncertainties regarding SMRs derailed a recent plan to construct a pilot plant in southeast New Mexico that Holtec wanted to build, backed by a state-sponsored task force to study it. That’s because local utilities weren’t interested, said Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary David Martin.

“Holtec wanted to move forward and the task force met with a number of utilities, but the feasibility study never got off the ground,” Martin told the Journal in March. “We need the market to do it.”

Another project by Idaho-based International Isotopes to build a $120 million spent-uranium deconversion facility near Hobbs was also derailed, at least temporarily, by the downturn in the nuclear industry. The plant, which wants to reprocess uranium byproducts from URENCO and other companies to extract fluoride for use in microelectric and photovoltaic manufacturing, is facing resistance.

“Financiers want 100 percent of plant capacity under contract first,” said company President and CEO Steve Laflin.

Still, while the nuclear industry appears down, it’s far from out and opportunities exist for ancillary businesses, such as the URENCO plant and Holtec’s proposed project, which is what southeast New Mexico is pursuing, Heaton said.

A hundred nuclear plants continue to operate in the U.S. Another 335 commercial nuclear plants operate worldwide, with 70 more under construction and 160 planned, according to the World Nuclear Association, a trade group.

And, with growing pressure on utilities to comply with environmental regulations, industry enthusiasts believe nuclear power’s zero-carbon emissions could lead to a revival in the future.

“New Mexico will continue to have a key presence in the auxiliary nuclear industry, given the national labs here and the efforts in southeast New Mexico to attract business there,” said Robert Busch, nuclear engineering lab director at the University of New Mexico.

Even UNM – which runs the only degree-granting nuclear engineering program in New Mexico and surrounding Southwest states – hopes to take advantage of activity in Eddy and Lea counties.

“It’s not roaring back, but nuclear still has a big role to play and there are opportunities,” said Anil Prinja, interim chair of UNM’s Department of Nuclear Engineering. “There’s still a lot of activity in New Mexico that we can help provide the educated workforce for … . We hope to participate in any way we can in southeast New Mexico initiatives like the new storage facility.”

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