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Nuclear Rubberstamping Commission rushes to approve Holtec’s New Mexico nuclear waste plan

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has categorically denounced the Holtec project and all other proposals to store nuclear waste in the area.

there are “no plans of ever removing” the waste. “We see no reason,” they said, “to rush a decision that affects generations of New Mexicans during a pandemic on behalf of an international, for-profit corporation.”

New Mexico’s nuclear rush,  A massive nuclear waste site near Carlsbad is seemingly on a fast track. Can the company behind it be trusted?   Searchlight New Mexico, By Sammy Feldblum and Tovah Strong|February 3, 2021

This article was reported in collaboration with the Institute of American Indian Arts’ journalism program.

For most New Mexico businesses, the arrival of COVID-19 wreaked havoc, caused shutdowns or threatened doom. But for one enterprise — potentially one of the world’s largest nuclear waste sites — the pandemic offered an unusual opportunity.

A long-planned nuclear waste storage facility in the southeastern New Mexico desert was rushed through the approval process during the pandemic, according to New Mexico’s congressional delegation, environmentalists and other opponents.

Typically, project foes would have been able to voice their disapproval at Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearings around the state. The coronavirus brought an end to such public gatherings, however, so New Mexico lawmakers asked the NRC to pause the hearings.

Instead, the agency switched to online meetings — and shut out dissenters in the process.

“There is a large population of individuals living in New Mexico without internet or phone access” — and the virtual hearings required both, said environmental activist Leona Morgan of the Nuclear Issues Study Group. A Diné woman who protests what she calls nuclear colonialism, Morgan said that many people couldn’t join the meetings because they didn’t have robust broadband connections, a common problem in tribal areas and remote parts of New Mexico.

Morgan counts herself among the lucky: She managed to join one of the virtual webinars in August. “There’s no reason to rush through this process except to line the pockets of for-profit companies and their shareholders,” she told the NRC.

The process in question involves Holtec International, the proposed builder and operator of the Consolidated Interim Storage Facility, a site between Hobbs and Carlsbad that could soon be licensed to store 8,680 metric tons of highly radioactive uranium from some 80 nuclear reactor sites around the country. Holtec, a company that has come under scrutiny for safety violations and other issues, could potentially be allowed to expand the site by nearly 20 fold.

Touted by backers as a local economic boon, the project would transform New Mexico into America’s radioactive waste “destination,” as Holtec describes it. The proposal has met considerable opposition, particularly given its location within the oil-rich Permian Basin.

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has categorically denounced the Holtec project and all other proposals to store nuclear waste in the area. “Allowing the interim storage of spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste at sites near the largest producing oilfield in the world will compromise the safety of the region,” Abbott wrote in a September letter to former President Trump.

Democratic Congresswoman Deb Haaland, the Secretary of the Interior nominee, opposes the Holtec plan for health, safety and economic reasons. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, more than a dozen state legislators and the Democrats in New Mexico’s congressional delegation are against it. The Navajo Nation, the All Pueblo Council of Governors and numerous local governments — representing nearly half the population of New Mexico — also object, citing potential risks to families, communities, agriculture, industry and the environment, now and forever. Some of the waste can remain radioactive for more than 1 million years.

If the NRC grants an operating license to Holtec, New Mexico will become a permanent nuclear dumping ground, opponents say.

“We are talking about storing over 120,000 metric tons of nuclear waste in an extremely active oil field without a clear picture of the potential hazards,” project foe Stephanie Garcia Richard, New Mexico’s land commissioner, stated in a letter to Holtec. Garcia Richard noted the potential for radioactive contamination at the storage site and along the highways and rail lines carrying spent fuel rods from 35 states. “There is no guarantee that high-level nuclear waste can be safely transported to and through New Mexico,” she wrote.

U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, for their part, decried the switch to online hearings and asked for a pause in the licensing process. “There is no compelling public interest reason to justify this rush to replace meetings with virtual webinars,” they told the NRC in an August 18 letter.

On September 15, after the last virtual hearing was concluded, the agency officially responded to the senators, declining their request.

On Sept. 22, when the public comment period on the NRC’s draft environmental impact statement closed, the commission recommended green-lighting the Holtec facility.

Radioactive tons

New Jersey-based Holtec plans to build the New Mexico storage site on 1,040 acres of scrubland located halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs. The two cities, along with Eddy and Lea counties, partnered with Holtec to build the project. All four municipalities would receive a share of Holtec’s revenues for storing the country’s dangerous detritus.

If Holtec wins its NRC license — which could happen as soon as this summer — the company would be allowed to store 500 canisters at the site, buried some 30 feet underground. As many as 10,000 canisters could eventually be added during a series of expansions. Holtec and its supporters say the site would be state-of-the-art, safe and secure.

“Because of the real estate and the seismic location, it is the best geologic site and the best environmental site in the country for the interim storage of these spent fuel rods,” Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb told Searchlight New Mexico.

The facility is intended as a temporary storage place, supporters add. In 40 years, the United States will presumably have built a permanent nuclear waste repository, and the spent fuel in New Mexico will be shipped to its new home. If a permanent spot hasn’t been found, however, Holtec has the option of tripling the lifespan of the New Mexico site.

To date, no permanent solution has been discovered – and opponents believe it never will be. They say the spent fuel would likely remain in New Mexico forever.

In a statement to Searchlight, Senators Udall and Heinrich echoed the concerns, noting that there are “no plans of ever removing” the waste. “We see no reason,” they said, “to rush a decision that affects generations of New Mexicans during a pandemic on behalf of an international, for-profit corporation.”

……The need for a protective facility is vast, supporters say. Radioactive waste from commercial reactors contains deadly byproducts like plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,000 years, or iodine-129, with a half-life of 16 million years. The U.S. commercial nuclear power industry currently produces over four million pounds of spent nuclear fuel each year. More than 183 million pounds of spent fuel — roughly the weight of 600 blue whales — languish at nuclear power plants around the country. The waste is stored in deep pools of water or in concrete and metal casks. All of it is in need of a new home.

From the nuclear industry’s early days, the federal government has known it would have to deal with high-level waste. “But their assumption all along, and what they proclaimed all along throughout the late 40s, 50s and 60s, was that that’s an issue which is down the road,” said Walker, the NRC historian…….



February 4, 2021 - Posted by | USA, wastes

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