State lawmakers, industry leaders tangle with nuclear waste site near Carlsbad
Producers in various industries spoke against a proposal to build a temporary nuclear waste facility near Carlsbad and Hobbs, during the initial meeting of a bicameral committee of New Mexico State lawmakers intended to study and provide oversight of the state’s nuclear activities.
Holtec International filed an application with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March 2017, and the application was accepted one year later, sparking outcry from across the state and west Texas.
The proposed project, under a 40-year license, would allow Holtec to temporarily store about 100,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods taken from nuclear generators across the country.
The waste would be transported by rail, and stored underground in casks about 30 feet deep.
It would be kept at the Holtec site, about 35 miles between Carlsbad and Hobbs, until being transported to a permanent repository.
Barring any regulatory hurdles, officials with Holtec predicted the facility could go into operation by 2022.
“This is a very consequential project for New Mexico,” said State Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-36), who chaired the committee during Thursday's meeting. This is not just a New Mexico issue. This is a very big deal. There are big policy issues we need to ask as well. The question is, who are the stakeholders in this project? The answer is all New Mexicans. All of us could have this going past our house.”
Opponents feared the facility could become a permanent repository, as no other such facility exists besides a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which stalled after federal funding was cut amid opposition from Nevada lawmakers.
Many also questioned the need to move the waste without a permanent repository being developed.
“As far as I understand, before the federal government can license an interim site, there has to be a permanent site,” Steinborn said. “It has the feel of putting the cart before the horse, especially for the people of New Mexico.”
Impact on industry?
Jimmy Carlile, health, safety and environment and regulatory supervisor at Fasken Oil, an oil extraction company based in Midland, Texas worried if the facility leaked, it could have devastating impacts on the state’s extraction industry.
He argued that extraction is an essential industry in New Mexico and west Texas, and cannot be put at risk of radioactive contamination.
The Permian Basin, Carlile said, is becoming one of the most productive oil plays in the world, and should be "protected."
“Any release of high-level nuclear waste cannot be positive for the Permian Basin community regardless of what side of the state line you’re on,” he said. “Southeast New Mexico has more drilling activity than, as far as I know, it has ever had. The future is dramatically better for the people there than it’s been in a long time. We simply can’t risk damage to that business.”
He was also concerned that adding a nuclear facility could deter oil workers from moving to the area.
“We can’t let this go forward because the quality of life issue becomes a big deal again. What family would want to move somewhere where there was a nuclear waste facility not very far away?”
Carlile admitted a repository is needed for nuclear waste, but argued it shouldn’t be in the Permian.
“We know that a long-term repository needs to be found,” he said. “But this area in the Permian Basin is just not where it needs to be done. We need the federal government to find a place to move it to, and move it one last time.”
But a permanent repository for the waste could take decades, after a potential restart of the Yucca Mountain project, said John Heaton, chair of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance.
In the meantime, he said southeast New Mexico should utilize its remote location to store the waste away from generator sites, often near bodies of water and densely-populated communities.
Heaton argued the operations of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a permanent repository for low-level waste 25 miles from Carlsbad, provided the surrounding community with a high “nuclear IQ” and a nuclear-aware workforce.
“We think that because we have such a good site, that it’s a moral obligation to relieve some of this pressure,” Heaton said. “We’re very nationalistic about WIPP. We’re cleaning up the cold war.”
The meeting was designed to allow public comment on a proposed Consolidated Interim Storage Facility by Holtec International. Wochit
That could come at a massive cost if there is a leak or incident at the proposed facility, said Linda Squire, a dairy farmer from Hagerman who spoke at the meeting.
She said a radiological event could cripple the local dairy industry, which she argued generates 17,000 area jobs and is an essential part of the region’s economy.
“We are very concerned about a worst-case scenario. Bad things can happen if you let your guard down,” Squire said. “If there were a worse-case scenario, the beef would be unsaleable, the milk would be unsaleable. Most of the diaries in our area wouldn’t have located there if they knew this was a possibility.”
State Rep. Cathrynn Brown (R-55) said Holtec project could actually boost New Mexico’s economy, creating job growth and further interest in southeast New Mexico’s nuclear sector.
She cautioned the public from being prejudiced against nuclear projects.
“I have observed in the years that I’ve been following the issues, that anything nuclear is going to be disliked by people,” Brown said. “As I’ve learned more about the science and engineering, I have a great deal of respect for the people that work in this industry.
“When I see a project that would be state-of-the-art, and I believe this would be, I feel we should give it our consideration.”
How to move it?
Each shipment of the high-level spent nuclear fuel would be transported to the Holtec site via rail car from nuclear reactor sites, mostly along the East Coast.
The loads are comprised of small nuclear fuel pellets stored in 12-foot-long rods, which are then bundled together in groups of 20 or more for easier handling.
The waste is loaded, and sealed at the generator sites.
The bundles are held in casks, whith each cask weighing about 125 tons when fully loaded.
Rail transport is the ideal mode to move the waste, said Holtech Vice President of Engineering and Licensing Stefan Anton.
He said existing rail lines could be used, bring the waste from the east through Clovis, south to Roswell and then to the site near Carlsbad.
From the west, the waste would cross through Grants before continuing east to Clovis before cutting south toward the facility.
“These are robust and safe transportation casks,” Anton said. “They use specialized rail cars. Transportation of spent nuclear fuel has been done for years in the U.S. and around the world.”
That potential path was the extent of Holtec’s plan to move the waste as presented to the committee, Anton said.
He said the company has been focused on licensing for storage of the waste, and the ultimate path would be determined by local rail companies along the way.
“At this time, we have not gone into any substantial detail about the transportation phase,” Anton said. “At this point in time, we’re working on licensing the storage site, so it could receive the casks.”
State Sen. Clemente Sanchez (D-30) worried the cars could be too heavy, and the project could stall without a viable transportation method.
“If that’s the case, that these casks are too heavy, if they’re too heavy for the rail line, they’re not going to let them on there,” he said. “It would probably cost too much to get it to where it needs to be.”
Sanchez asked if it is possible to move the waste by road, which Anton said was could be a potential solution.
“It’s preferential to move these on rail, but it’s not impossible to move them on the roads,” Anton said. “It’s definitely more difficult to do that. We would need to find a way to distribute the weight so that it could be moved on the roads.”
Heaton argued that the rail cars are the most viable option, and they can be fortified to hold heavier loads by adding axels.
The average rail car has six axels, Anton said, but the cars used for Holtec’s waste would have eight or 10.
The cars could also be slowed down to 55 miles per hour, Heaton said.
“The idea that these loads are too heavy for the rail cars is absurd,” Heaton said. “You just add more axles. It’s a physics problem. But that’s how it’s done.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, email@example.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.