Hearing: Critics blast Holtec proposal to store nuclear waste near Carlsbad

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus
A rendering of what Holtec International's interim nuclear waste repository would look like if completed.

Activist groups criticized a proposal to build a temporary storage site for spent nuclear fuel near Carlsbad and Hobbs, citing the project’s compliance with federal law and potential environmental impacts should it become operational.

The comments came during a hearing held by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board in Albuquerque.

The purpose of the hearing was for board members to hear arguments from those opposing the project and determine which arguments could be admitted during future hearings and what organizations would be granted standing during the proceedings.

Nuclear technology company Holtec International applied for an application in 2017 through the NRC to license construction of a consolidated interim storage (CIS) facility to hold nuclear waste temporarily as a permanent geological repository is devised.

More:Who is Holtec? International company touts experience in nuclear storage

Administrative Judge and board member Paul Ryerson, who chaired the hearing, said the board will make its final determinations in March.

But he did say the organization Beyond Nuclear would be granted standing, as many of its members reside in southeast New Mexico near the site of the proposed project.

Diane Curran, an attorney representing Beyond Nuclear said member of the group live as close to a mile away from the proposed site.

“Suddenly when they drive down (U.S. Highway) 62/180, they are exposing themselves to radiation,” Curran said. “Beyond Nuclear members will not be able to escape the spent nuclear fuel Holtec plans to store in their backyard. No one will be more harmed by this proposal.”

Curran also pointed to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which she claimed barred the federal government including the U.S. Department of Energy, from taking title or ownership of nuclear waste.

More:Attorney general: New Mexico has little say in Holtec proposal

Holtec officials, in the past described two scenarios where either the DOE would take ownership and liability or the nuclear power companies that used the fuel at generator sites would do so.

“Holtec wants to proceed under an arrangement where the DOE take title to the waste, or an arrangement where the nuclear power companies would take title,” Ryerson said. “If Holtec went with option two, would that address your problem?”

Curran said the option for the private companies to retain title would address her concerns for compliance with federal law but would do nothing to quell anxiety for the impact on the environment.

“That would solve that problem, but there are other problems,” she said.

A cut away of a cask used by Holtec international to transport spent nuclear fuel

And against arguments from Holtec that pending Congressional legislation could alter the law to allow the DOE to take ownership of the waste, Curran said such legislation should be passed before the NRC began licensure proceedings.

“The current state of the law is that DOE may not take title to the nuclear waste,” she said. “For the NRC to entertain an application that is based on a hypothetical change to the law, we believe is a violation.  We would say go to the court first, and then come to the NRC.”

If the DOE did take ownership of the waste intended to be temporarily emplaced at Holtec, Curran worried it would eliminate incentive for a permanent, deep geological repository to be developed.

More:NM Senator demands answers on Holtec proposal

Such as project was proposed at Yucca Mountain in Nevada but was blocked by state lawmakers and federal funding was subsequently pulled.

“If the DOE becomes involved, that takes away a lot of political incentive to create a permanent repository,” Curran said. “Once New Mexico accepts all the waste, a lot of motivation would be gone.”

But if all the legal issues are sorted out, fears of environmental impacts remained.

Wallace Taylor of the Sierra Club said he worried that people could be unknowingly exposed to radiation, as the spent nuclear fuel to be held at the Holtec site would be brought in, via rail, from nuclear power plants across the country.

Taylor argued the waste should be left at the generator sites, but supporters of the project argued the generator sites are typically in areas with high population density, or near large bodies of water.

“The waste will come from all over the country, mostly via rail. Sometimes through cities, sometimes through farm lands,” Taylor said. “We have to look at the consequences, first of that transportation issue. The sheer scope of this project is unprecedented.”

More:The Battle of Yucca Mountain

Yucca Mountain was initially designed to permanently hold about 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste, and similar CIS facility proposed in Andrews, Texas called for about 40,000 metric tons.

The Holtec facility, when fully constructed, could hold more than 170,000 metric tons.

Such a load is simply not safe for New Mexicans, Taylor said. Aside from exposing the public to high doses of radiation, Taylor worried about ground water contamination and impacts to the local extraction industry should a storage cask rupture.

More:DOE proposes reclassifying high-level nuclear waste, could send more to WIPP

The casks would hold assemblies or bundles of steel rods containing the ceramic pellets used as nuclear fuel. There is no liquid component to the process, which could seep out into the water table.

“It will remain dangerous for time spans seemingly beyond human comprehension,” Taylor said. “That should give us all pause and should cause the board to give this case very serious consideration.

“This may end up being a permanent facility if there’s no geologic repository built. There’s no indication that this will be just an interim facility.”

Regardless of timelines, John Heaton, chair of the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance, the organization overseeing the project, said it is New Mexico and the two counties’ “patriotic duty” to assist in cleaning up the nation’s nuclear waste.

Southeast New Mexico also provides a suitable location, he said, remote and far from high-population areas and bodies of water.

Furthermore, the casks could not leak, Heaton said, as they are built with reinforced steel and contained in concrete.

“There is no interaction with the environment, water or air,” Heaton said. “It’s the heaviest cask ever licensed by the NRC. It’s extremely robust.

“When people oppose something, they use fear mongering and never have a technical discussion.”

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More:Public can request federal hearings on Holtec proposal for nuclear storage

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.