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New Mexico Is Divided Over The ‘Perfect Site’ To Store Nation’s Nuclear Waste via NPR

NATHAN ROTT

Thirty-five miles out of Carlsbad, in the pancake-flat desert of southeast New Mexico, there’s a patch of scrub-covered dirt that may offer a fix — albeit temporarily — to one of the nation’s most vexing and expensive environmental problems: What to do with our nuclear waste?

Despite more than 50 years of searching and billions of dollars spent, the federal government still hasn’t been able to identify a permanent repository for nuclear material. No state seems to want it.

So instead, dozens of states are stuck with it. More than 80,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, a still-radioactive byproduct of nuclear power generation, is spread across the country at power plants and sites in 35 states.

[…]

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering a proposal by Holtec International, a private U.S.-based company, to build a massive consolidated interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel on that patch of desert. It could eventually hold up to 100,000 metric tons of the material, storing it until a permanent repository is found.

[…]

A broad coalition of local and national groups opposes the plan, as does the state’s new governor. They’re worried about transporting the nuclear waste and the environmental impacts of storing it.

“Why should we be the ones to take this negative project on and put up with the consequences?” says Rose Gardner, a florist who lives 35 miles from the proposed site. “We didn’t get any of the nuclear generated electricity. We’re not even involved.”

[…]

But efforts to move that project forward were stifled by local opposition. Stuck at an impasse, and under pressure from then-Senate Majority Leader and Nevadan Harry Reid, the Obama administration scrapped funding for the site in 2009.

The Trump administration has called for funding to revive the Yucca Mountain project, but local resistance remains and Nevada lawmakers have dug in their heels.

In the meantime, spent nuclear fuel continues to build up at scores of power plants around the country, at facilities that weren’t designed to store it.

The problem with this is two-fold. 

For one: it’s expensive. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act said that the Department of Energy would find a permanent home for utilities’ nuclear waste by 1998. It didn’t. So now, the Department of Energy pays utility companies more than $2 million a day to store that nuclear waste on-site. That’s taxpayer money.

The other problem is public safety.

More than one-in-three Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, according to Columbia University. Many of those plants are now storing spent nuclear fuel on coastlines or near rivers, areas that are more prone to flooding and natural disasters.

[…]

Ranchers and dairy-producers in New Mexico worry about what impact the Holtec facility would have on their industry, real or perceived. There’s a fear that consumers wouldn’t want to buy beef or milk from a place that’s also home to the nation’s biggest collection of nuclear material. 

There are also concerns from some in the region’s biggest industry: oil and gas. The proposed site is in the Permian Basin, one of the busiest oil fields in the world.

[…]

Down a quiet side street, Rose Gardner, an opponent of both proposals, is taking three grandchildren for a walk. 

“We know it’s supposed to be consent-based,” she says. “They’re not getting consent. The actual people aren’t for it. And without community support, it won’t go.”

[…]

Twenty years ago, nearby, the U.S. government built the country’s only deep-underground storage facility for radioactive material, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project. It’s designed to store lower-level nuclear waste from research laboratories and weapons facilities around the country. 
A similar debate played out before the construction of that facility.

Supporters touted the jobs and income it would bring to the area. Opponents worried about its safety. And there have been issues
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is mindful of those and is unequivocal in her feelings towards Holtec’s proposal. 
“There’s nobody that’s been able to demonstrate to me that there isn’t risk here,” she says. “There is risk. We need to be clear about that. I don’t think it’s the right decision for the state.”

Read more at New Mexico Is Divided Over The ‘Perfect Site’ To Store Nation’s Nuclear Waste

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