With no permanent repository for commercial nuclear waste, NM is in the spotlight via NM Political Report

Over the past two decades, southeastern New Mexico has embraced an industry many other communities throughout the country have rejected. Following more than 20 years of proposals, studies and battles, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) opened near Carlsbad in 1999 to store nuclear weapons waste underground. Then, in 2010, a uranium enrichment plant opened in Eunice. And boosters have floated other ideas, including a nuclear waste reprocessing plant.

Most recently, a group of local politicians and businessmen invited a private company to store high-level waste from commercial nuclear power plants on a thousand acres between Carlsbad and Hobbs.


“We feel the same way about WIPP,” he said. “We’re very nationalistic about WIPP: We’re solving the problem of the Cold War and we feel good about that in the community.”

Not all New Mexicans feel that way. Many legislators on the committee had tough questions for Heaton and Holtec’s Vice President of Engineering, Stefan Anton. And at two public meetings last week, residents overwhelmingly opposed the plan and the license, raising concerns about waste transportation, operations of the facility, New Mexico’s relationship with the nuclear industry and the energy alliance itself.

‘State of the art’ facility deserves consideration

During his presentation to the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, Holtec’s Anton said the first phase of the project would bring 500 canisters to the site, and eventually up to 10,000.

Each canister holds between 20 to 90 assemblies, and each assembly contains several hundred fuel rods. Each fuel rod, he said, measures about 12 feet long and a half-inch in diameter. All told, the plan is to bring 100,000 metric tons of waste, which he said could be stored on about 500 acres.

Waste would be shipped by railroad. And the HI-STORE Consolidated Interim Storage Facility, as it’s called, would employ Holtec’s own fuel storage system—already in widespread use—and store the canisters underground.


He also pointed to WIPP as an example. “We’ve done 12,000 shipments over 14 million miles on the highway: that’s to the moon and back 28 times and it’s a long way to travel without a significant release,” he said.

For Heaton, it’s also a matter of economics. The project represents a $2.4 billion capital investment in southeastern New Mexico, he said, and would create 240 construction jobs. “There will be 10,000 of these silos built, and that will employ a lot of welders and fabricators in our area,” he said, adding that it could become a “center of excellence” for research. The company is also agreeable to an “incentive package,” Heaton said.


NM residents rally

Last Tuesday night in Albuquerque, more than 200 people filled a hotel ballroom to hear from NRC officials about the licensing process and to comment on Holtec’s plans. Heaton, a representative from Holtec and a handful of people spoke in favor of the plans. Most of the more-than 60 speakers opposed the license. Even those not signed up to speak offered commentary from the audience, heckling proponents and cheering when people spoke against the project.

A former state employee spoke—first to grumbles from the crowd when he said southeastern New Mexico is a good location, geologically speaking. As he continued, people began clapping. To the NRC, he said, “do thorough, thoughtful regulation—people in this state are tired of being walked on.” And to Holtec, he said, “Be open with people.”


Local communities have the right to pursue economic development plans, he acknowledged, but they have to consider the broader impact storing high-level nuclear waste could have on the state as a whole. And the concerns of communities along waste transportation routes are valid, too.

“It’s just a reality that this isn’t just about local impacts to southeastern New Mexico, and it will impact lots of people around the state,” he said. “Beyond which, there are certain legacy ramifications to the state as a whole…would it have an impact on the reputation of the state as a whole, and the other industries we’re trying to lure to the state?”

Economic development is in the eye of the beholder, he said, noting as a cluster of nuclear facilities have arisen in southeastern New Mexico, some people have embraced that.


The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s public comment period for its scoping process on Holtec’s license for the HI-STORE Consolidated Interim Storage Facility is open until July 30. Comments can be emailed to Holtec-CIFEIS@nrc.gov.

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