Who is Holtec? International company touts experience in nuclear storage
A proposed temporary storage facility for thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel in southeast New Mexico was met by waves of protests from environmentalist and political activist groups.
Many cited the perceived danger of storing the fuel on an interim basis, when a permanent repository was not in existence.
Some worried about radiation “leaking” out of the storage casks meant to hold the waste for about 40 years, per the license application.
But officials at Holtec International, the company that wants to build such a facility near the Eddy/Lea county line, contend the system is proven to be safe despite concerns.
Headquartered in Jupiter, Florida, Holtec was founded in 1986, and today holds 13 licenses with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for various nuclear projects.
“The issue we have as a company is there is a lot of misunderstanding of what spent nuclear fuel, and storage is,” said Ed Mayer, Holtec program director. “The misunderstanding is so high, when you go to the public meetings, there are so many things that are off-base. It’s hard to address everything because it’s so outrageous.”
The spent nuclear fuel rods that would be stored at the facility are made up of small ceramic pellets, about the size of pencil eraser, Mayer said.
These pellets are put inside metal tubes and then grouped into packages known as "assemblies."
The assemblies are then fit into the reactor to generate nuclear energy.
When the fuel is spent at the reactor, it is removed and can be safely transported, Mayer said, as it has been for years.
In total, he estimated nuclear fuel rods were safely transported in about 1,300 shipments in the U.S. alone and no injuries or incidents were reported.
“It’s being done now safely,” Mayer said. “There’s been no injury, no loss of life. It’s been safe because of heavy regulation from the NRC.”
Mayer argued that the NRC’s regulations are strong enough to prevent any dangerous situations from arising.
“There’s a risk with anything,” he said. “But that risk is defined by the heavy regulations of the NRC. There are threats the NRC wants to protect from. We have to prove we can do that.”
What’s at risk?
Jimmy Carlile, health, safety and environment and regulatory supervisor at Fasken Oil, an oil extraction company based in Midland, Texas, testified before New Mexico lawmakers last month that 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.
“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.
Against accusations that the site could pose threats to the nearby oil and gas industry, Mayer said the facility would emplace waste only 30 feet underground, far above any drill operations.
“Our facility is a surface facility,” he said. “Horizontal drilling will have no effect on the facility. We’re sure about that. Even if there was a surface tremor, there’s nothing to leak out. It’s not gaseous in any way.”
Linda Squire, a dairy farmer from Hagerman 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.”
But Mayer said the spent fuel is solid and could not leak out of the canisters even if they were ruptured.
“There’s really no liquid. It’s just metal and ceramic,” Mayer said. “When people say there will be a leak, they’re assuming there is liquid in there. That’s not what we’re talking about. It’s dry and stored in stainless steel canisters.”
Federal oversight ensures safety, Holtec says
Before Holtec's facility can even begin to be built, it must go through a more than one-year licensing process, costing up to about $7.5 million, records show.
That includes scoping meetings held in Carlsbad and other nearby communities, where the agency solicited comments from the public and local leaders.
The NRC will also develop an environmental impact statement (EIC), which will also require public hearings and comments.
It’s a system of oversight Joy Russell, Holtec vice president of corporate business development, said is proven to work and will guarantee the site and its surrounding regions are kept safe during storage.
While the proposed consolidated interim storage (CIS) facility is the first of its kind and scale, Russell said the industry has so far succeeded with few incidents.
“The record of the nuclear industry speaks for itself,” she said. “The U.S. has not had an issue with the nuclear industry.”
On March 28, 1976, a nuclear plant known as The Three Mile Island Unit in Middletown, Pennsylvania partially melted down, per NRC records.
The incident was the result of poor worker training and design flaws, records show.
“This was the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history, although its small radioactive releases had no detectable health effects on plant workers or the public,” read an NRC report.
“Its aftermath brought about sweeping changes involving emergency response planning, reactor operator training, human factors engineering, radiation protection, and many other areas of nuclear power plant operations.”
Russell said those changes, requiring more oversight and documentation submitted to the NRC, would ensure nuclear sites such as the Holtec facility, are safe for the foreseeable future.
“I think there are a lot of individuals that are out there throwing information out there, that are coming from an emotional standpoint,” she said. “That’s unfortunate.”
In addition to federal oversight, Holtec performs its own quality assurance program to study and maintain the stability of the casks.
Mayer said the canisters will be inspected using X-ray technology after emplacement, at a frequency to be determined through the licensing process.
“We know we’re going to go out and look at these canisters on a regular basis,” he said.
Security would be “highly-regulated” by the NRC, Mayer said, but the site’s remote location should discourage any sort of attack.
He also said the site would pose minimal risk of terrorist attacks, and proper security would be in place if such an incident occurs.
Armed guards would be positioned throughout the site, around its double-fenced perimeter, while the facility is monitored by closed-circuit television.
“When you look at what terrorists attack, they attack soft targets in highly-populated areas,” Mayer said. “This is not a terrorist target. But if they do attack, we can repel them appropriately.”
Facility could open by 2021
The NRC accepted Holtec International’s application for review in March, and a final decision to grant a license for the first 500 of 10,000 casks could come by 2020, said John Heaton, chair of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA) overseeing the project.
With construction, the site could be ready the following winter, or early 2022.
Heaton said ELEA sent out a request for information (RFI) form to multiple companies in the nuclear sector in December 2016.
The contract was awarded to Holtec in early 2017, and Heaton cited what he called the nuclear industry’s "acceptance" of Holtec’s storage systems, which are used at generator sites across the country.
He said the company would be best suited to move and store the same waste at the remote site in southeast New Mexico – getting it away from generators in highly-populated areas often near large bodies of water.
“We thought it was the safest, most secure system in the world,” Heaton said. “That was one of the major reasons we chose the. We signed the contract in short order.”
In Holtec’s contract, Heaton said, it is given the option to buy the land of the proposed facility for $1,000,000 or an appraised value, whichever is highest after the appraisal.
But that won’t happen until the company is granted its license by the NRC.
In the meantime, Heaton said protestors of the project based their opposition on emotion rather than facts.
“It’s really disappointing what people are saying, that is not fact-based,” he said “The accusations people make are just false. People will say anything.”
The site would have no interaction with nearby water tables or aquifers, Heaton said, nor are the casks in any danger of rupturing and leaking into the ground.
Spent nuclear fuel rods would be held in 15-inch-thick casks made of steel and aluminum, transported on railcars.
Heaton argued the railcars could modified if needed to hold any additional weight, and could be driven at a slower pace to avoid any high-speed collisions.
“Accidents occur, but that doesn’t mean there will be a release,” He said. “It’s just the robustness of the casks. They’re virtually indestructible.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, email@example.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.