All radioactive waste generated by the nation’s nuclear power plants could be shipped to southeastern New Mexico as soon as 2022 and stored for decades just below ground, on the dry plains near Carlsbad, if a federal agency gives its approval.
On Friday, Holtec International, a nuclear fuel manufacturing and management company based in Florida, filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to create a temporary storage facility that would consolidate spent fuel rods from across the U.S. at a single site about 15 miles north of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
The project already has gained wide support from a number of state lawmakers, top state and county officials and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
In a statement issued Friday, Holtec said the state government and local communities “have provided unwavering support for the program.”
If the federal regulatory agency approves the plan, a process expected to take two years, the company could break ground on the nearly 1,000-acre parcel by 2019, with waste shipments starting in 2022. Company officials said they expect the project to generate up to 350 construction jobs and several hundred permanent jobs, including on-site security personnel, after the site opens.
The site would be licensed for 40 years by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and then it would be subject to a license renewal process.
Currently, there are 61 operating nuclear power plants, and 27 that are retired or in the process of being decommissioned, across 30 states, all with casks of above-ground nuclear waste. The largest of them, the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona, which supplies power to New Mexico through the Public Service Company of New Mexico, has roughly 120 concrete casks of waste sitting on site.
Nuclear power plants run on nuclear fuel — composed of radioactive uranium compacted into thin rods, 15 inches long and the width of a pinky finger. The rods are stacked into a rack and used to generate nuclear power through fission. After about six years, the rods are cooled in ponds on plant property and then stored above ground in concrete casks.
But a number of states worry about the vulnerability of these materials — either from an accident that could compromise the environment or public health, or from an attack. Nuclear power plants are considered a potential security threat, in part because the radioactive materials they hold could be used to create crude nuclear bombs.
In 2012, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future identified temporary consolidated storage as a feasible solution.
The Holtec site would have the capacity for 10,000 canisters of spent nuclear fuel, more than enough to hold all the spent rods generated in the U.S. so far, according to company officials.
They said the facility would emit a radiation dose of “virtually zero.”
At the site, a mile from N.M. 62, nearly equidistant from Hobbs and Carlsbad, a wide pit would be dug 30 feet into the earth and divided by hundreds of cylindrical carbon steel vessels. The waste would be stored from 3 to 23 feet below the surface. Each vessel would be filled with as many as 89 spent fuel assemblies, each made up of thousands of fuel rods.
The waste field would have the appearance of a graveyard. Only the canister lids — 4-ton steel squares placed in perfect rows — would be visible from the surface.
Joy Russell, a spokeswoman for Holtec International, said underground storage not only protects the environment but guards the material from terrorists, missile attacks or aircraft collisions.
It would be the fourth underground facility of this nature designed by Holtec in the U.S. A second proposed site, commissioned by Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists, is a year into the application process for regulatory approval. Located in Andrews, Texas, just east of the New Mexico border, the project has generated protest and mixed support from the surrounding communities. The two sites are fewer than 50 miles apart.
Russell said community support for the proposed New Mexico facility was a key factor in its location. “The general population in the southeast New Mexico area is very knowledgeable about nuclear,” she said, “and is very welcoming to nuclear-based industry for its industry growth.”
In fact, the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a coalition of officials from the two counties and several cities in them, first approached Holtec about the project in 2012. The alliance had previously purchased the land north of WIPP in 2007, hoping to convert spent nuclear fuel into regenerated fuel, according to alliance vice chairman John Heaton.
But that project never materialized. In 2012, when the Blue Ribbon Commission recommended a consolidation site, the alliance saw another use for the land.
“We thought this was an ideal location,” Heaton said.
The area is close to a four-lane highway and a railroad line, and is 25 miles from the closest community. Although, there is a ranch home a few miles from the site, as well as potash, and oil and gas operations nearby.
“The people here have a very good and deep understanding of nuclear materials and what the risks are and what they aren’t,” Heaton said.
He said the project could be a $2.4 billion investment in capital for the state, although company officials declined to discuss cost estimates Friday.
Carlsbad has had an intimate relationship with nuclear waste since WIPP began accepting low-level transuranic waste — largely contaminated soil, tools and rags — in 1999. The plant closed down for nearly three years — only reopening in January — after an underground fire and a radiation leak in 2014, caused by an improperly packaged waste drum that burst underground. Parts of the salt mine and its ventilation system were contaminated.
Still, it seems that support for nuclear waste projects has not waned in the region.
The area is also home to the Urenco USA uranium enrichment factory in Eunice, which provides the materials used at the core of fuel rods.
Holtec says it has received support from six local legislators and Mayor Dale Janway of Carlsbad, Mayor Sam Cobb of Hobbs, commissioners in Eddy and Lea counties, state Environment Secretary Butch Tongate and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Ken McQueen.
Gov. Martinez expressed her support for the project in 2015, writing a letter to then-U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
“I support the [Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance] and its member cities and counties in their effort to establish a consolidated interim storage facility in southeastern New Mexico that will be regulated by the high safety and technical standards of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” the governor wrote.
“We desperately need jobs,” said Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia. “There is not a single thing that would solve our fiscal situation quicker than more goods jobs. This industry provides good jobs and has a good track record.
“I don’t believe the community or the state will allow something to occur that they don’t believe is safe,” he continued. “Look at WIPP’s track record. Overall, we have had a very good track record, and I believe this facility will perform equally.”
Eddy County Commission Chairwoman Stella Davis also said the project would be an important job creator and voiced support for the nuclear industry.
Even if the temporary consolidation project moves forward, there is currently no permanent place for the waste to go. That could leave New Mexico with the burden without an end in sight.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in an email that he “won’t support an interim disposal site without a plan for permanent disposal — whether the site is in southeastern New Mexico or anywhere else in the country — because that nuclear waste could be orphaned there indefinitely.”
In 1987, Congress designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the place to permanently dispose of high-level waste. Billions of dollars were invested in the project despite public and political outcry in the state. When former President Barack Obama took office, he halted the project and sought to withdraw its license application from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
But President Donald Trump appears to have other ideas. A draft budget released in March outlines $120 million for Yucca Mountain and interim storage over the coming fiscal year, with few further details on the plan. Nevada lawmakers said in March that they would reject any restart of the Yucca Mountain waste site project.
Udall, meanwhile, said WIPP already has served as New Mexico’s contribution to the nation’s waste storage problem.
“Any future nuclear waste mission in New Mexico would need broad support throughout the state, as well as an independent scientific analysis ensuring its safety before I would consider supporting it,” he said.
Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.