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Otero County panel to vote on nuclear waste project

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Otero County Commission is expected to vote today on a resolution opposing a U.S. Department of Energy plan to drill a deep borehole in the county as part of a research project to find new sites for high-level defense nuclear waste.

Opposition to the project in Alamogordo has grown in recent months.

The resolution affirms the three-member commission’s “intent to rescind our position of neutrality and assert our official opposition” to the borehole project, saying that it “is not supported by the majority of citizens within Otero County.”

“The public has become more educated on the topic, and they are overwhelmingly opposed to the project,” Commissioner Janet White said. “It has to do with Otero County’s lack of trust in the federal government.”

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She added, “Do you want nuclear waste in your backyard?”

The Journal could not reach the other commissione rs Wednesday.

The estimated five-year, $80 million project is supposed to deliver data on whether 16,000-foot boreholes drilled into crystalline rock formations at four locations nationwide – including one in Alamogordo and another in Quay County – would work for nuclear waste disposal, according to an ExchangeMonitor report. There has been significant opposition at the three other sites.

The DOE contracts awarded to private companies include a clause requiring them to find a drilling location on private property and secure public support. Contractor TerranearPMC has leased land on the Y-Bar ranch in southern Otero County, near the Texas line.

“The Department is particularly interested in evaluating whether deep boreholes might offer a safe and practical alternative to mined geologic repositories for smaller forms of nuclear waste,” DOE says on its website. “Importantly, no nuclear waste will be involved in this field test, nor will the Department use any selected site for the actual storage or disposal of waste in the future.”

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group says the DOE is being disingenuous.

“It’s a research project, but the sites being selected for the research are also more likely the disposal sites because of that research,” Mello said. “I don’t buy the idea that this has nothing to do with waste disposal, which is what these communities are being told.”

In a commentary signed by six Republican legislators and published in January by the Alamogordo Daily News, the lawmakers voiced support for the borehole project, saying it “will be a source of economic stimulus for our community.”

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“The researchers are not trying to determine if Otero County is suitable for nuclear material disposal,” the six legislators wrote. “They’re simply studying the rocks.”

The commentary included an assurance that “any time nuclear material is going to be stored, an agreement must be reached between the federal government and a state task force and legislative subcommittee” – and that hasn’t happened yet.

The Energy Department’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad already hosts defense nuclear waste deep underground. But the “transuranic” waste at WIPP is not as dangerous as the high-level waste DOE has recently contemplated disposing of in deep boreholes, according to Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center.

High-level waste is “thousands to millions of times more radioactive” than transuranic waste, Hancock said. Much of it is still in liquid form and would have to be vitrified, or turned into glass, before it could be transported, Hancock said.

The borehole research project is “dangerous because if a community ‘consents’ to the project, sometime in the future DOE will come back to say that they’d like to put waste in the ground,” he said.


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