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New Mexico’s nuclear rush via Search Light New Mexico

A massive nuclear waste site near Carlsbad is seemingly on a fast track. Can the company behind it be trusted?

Sammy Feldblum and Tovah Strong

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.

[…]

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. 

[…]

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.

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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.

[…]

The company was formed in the 1980s to design spent-fuel storage technology for nuclear plants. By the early 2000s, Holtec had secured contracts to provide specialized dry storage casks for a never-built interim facility on the Skull Valley Goshute reservation in Utah and the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Sequoyah Nuclear and Browns Ferry Nuclear plants. By 2018, Holtec operated branches in seven countries, including Ukraine and Spain.

In 2019, Holtec began acquiring decommissioned nuclear power plants. (Such plants can bring large profits, including whatever decommissioning funds are left over after they’ve been cleaned up.) Holtec purchased New Jersey’s Oyster Creek Generating Station; Massachusetts’ Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station; New York’s Indian Point Energy Center; and Michigan’s Palisades Nuclear Generating Station, as well as spent fuel from the former Big Rock Point Nuclear Power Plant. 

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The most recent violation occurred in 2018 when Holtec modified its casks without notifying the NRC, as mandated. The change was only discovered when workers preparing to load a cask at San Onofre Generating Station in California noticed a four-inch pin, meant to hold the fuel basket, loose at the bottom of the cask — an obvious manufacturing flaw. When asked for comment on the incidents, a Holtec spokesman told Searchlight that the company is an industry leader in quality assurance.

Holtec has run into other problems as well. An investigation conducted in 2010 by the Tennessee Valley Authority into suspected overbilling revealed that the company had bribed a TVA employee in order to secure a contract. In 2007, the employee pleaded guilty to concealing more than $54,000 received from Holtec. In the wake of the investigation, the TVA ordered the company to pay a $2 million fine, open its operations to outside monitors and face a largely symbolic 60-day ban from doing federal business — the first debarment in TVA history.

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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.

Today, the road might lead to New Mexico.

Read more at New Mexico’s nuclear rush

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