State lawmakers peppered representatives of a company and a local government consortium with sharp questions Friday afternoon over a proposal to bury spent nuclear fuel rods in southeastern New Mexico, expressing skepticism about the legality and safety of an “interim” underground storage facility that would sit halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs.
Most notably legislators on the interim Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee made clear they were not at ease with the lack of a permanent U.S. repository for the fuel rods, which would make New Mexico the de facto home of the nuclear materials until some other facility were established — a remote prospect lawmakers estimated to be several decades into the future, if it is to happen at all.
“None of us are going to be here in 40 years,” said state Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, referring to the 40-year lease sought by Holtec International, the New Jersey-based firm proposing to operate the New Mexico storage facility. “And we know how the federal government works.”
State Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, referring to nuclear materials spread across U.S. power plants, said, “We didn’t create this.” The state is not required to take responsibility for the problem by taking on such a project, she added.
“It truly is not a temporary measure,” Rodriguez said. “The reality is, 40 years, to me, is a permanent measure. The precedents it would be setting for New Mexico — what’s next?”
A Holtec representative and the leader of a regional advocacy group countered that the proposal represents a profound economic development opportunity and described it in almost patriotic terms — as the “missing piece” of the country’s protracted nuclear disposal dilemma.
“We think that because we have such a good site, it is really somewhat of a moral responsibility to relieve the pressure in other parts of the country where they are at significantly higher risk,” said John Heaton, chairman of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, an organization formed by the cities of Hobbs and Carlsbad and Lea and Eddy counties.
“This is the best, safest system in the world, bar none,” he added. “There’s gonna be an interim storage facility somewhere, folks. It could be here. It could be in Texas.”
Holtec and surrounding local governments want to establish the underground site near the border of Eddy and Lea counties, roughly 35 miles from any city. The thousand-acre facility, according to Holtec’s application for a 40-year license, initially would store up to almost 8,700 metric tons of uranium in thick vessels beneath the surface.
Stefan Anton, a Holtec vice president, said Friday the total storage capacity would be 173,000 metric tons.
The vessels, rising only 2 feet off the ground, would have minimal visual impact, Anton said, and are “virtually immune” to environmental disasters.
They are “designed to withstand crashing aircraft or an on-site fire without any radiological consequences,” according to Holtec’s presentation.
And its regional benefit, Heaton said, would be a $2.4 billion capital investment and several hundred permanent jobs.
“We don’t go to Española and tell you how to run your economic development — or Santa Fe or Taos,” he told the legislative committee. “People have to do what they have to do in their own areas to develop their own economic development. We found what we think is a great niche.”
Republican members of the committee were generally less skeptical.
“I think it deserves our serious consideration,” said Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad. “Not just as New Mexicans but as citizens of this country.”
But the project faced some pushback from the primary economic development horse in southeastern New Mexico — the oil and gas industry.
Jimmy Carlile of Fasken Oil and Ranch in Midland, Texas, said he had some concerns about risks the project would pose to the Permian Basin region, including quality-of-life issues for oil and gas workers.
“This is a hundred-thousand-year potential screw up,” Carlile said.
Former Roswell Mayor Thomas Jennings, a self-described third-generation oilman, said the recent surge of growth in the region’s oil business would be imperiled by the proposed facility. There are wells “within gunshot of this place,” he said.
Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, urged talks between the project backers and the ranching and oil-and-gas communities.
“Oil and gas people are some of the most capitalistic people there are,” Griggs said. “If it’s a good deal, I’d like to think they’d think it was a good deal.”
Safe transportation into the facility — and back out of it, if a permanent repository eventually is established — was top of mind for lawmakers. The proposal envisions rail transport from nuclear sites all across the country into the Eddy-Lea site, the final stretch on a spur that winds past Clovis and Roswell.
“All New Mexicans could have this going by their house,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces. “Rail accidents do occur. This is a reality.”
Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center pointed out that current federal law does not permit the U.S. Department of Energy, which would be the ultimate titleholder to the fuel rods, to enter into the sort of contract proposed by Holtec.
Anton acknowledged the proposal would require changes in federal law.
“What we are proposing is definitely not illegal,” he said, though he added: “For operation of the system, which would occur in a few years, there are some legal things that may have to be resolved.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March said it had accepted the Holtec application for review. The review could be completed by July 2020, the company said Friday.
Holtec projects that construction could then begin in 2023.
The Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee will take up the matter again at a July meeting in Hobbs.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will take written public comments on the proposal through the end of July. Two additional public meetings are scheduled, in Gallup and Albuquerque, next week.
IF YOU GO
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold two more public meetings next week on a proposal by Holtec International and a local government consortium in southeastern New Mexico to build a temporary underground storage facility for spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants across the country.
• 6 p.m. Monday, Gallup Downtown Conference Center, 204 W. Coal Ave.
• 6 p.m. Tuesday, Crowne Plaza Albuquerque, 1901 University Blvd. NE