New high-level nuclear waste facility application OK'd in southeast NM

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By Tris DeRoma

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission accepted a nuclear power plant part manufacturer’s proposal Wednesday to build a high-level, underground nuclear waste facility in southeast New Mexico.

Holtec International plans to initially store up to 8,680 metric tons of waste at the site.

The 1,045-acre facility, if approved, would be located in Lea County, 12 miles away from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad. Los Alamos National Laboratory stores its transuranic waste at WIPP.

Waste stored at the proposed facility would originate at nuclear reactors across the country, and would be in the form of spent nuclear fuel rods – high-level radioactive waste – and reactor-related waste greater than class c waste, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The facility would be named the Hi-Store Consolidation Interim Storage Facility.

Holtec also applied for a 40-year waste storage license.

The facility would be built on 1,045 acres of unoccupied land that is mainly used for cattle grazing, according to Holtec’s application. The land is owned by Eddy Lea Energy Alliance, a company created by Lea and Eddy Counties, Holtec and the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs for the purpose of building the facility.

The company was formed in 2015.  According to a April 30, 2015 press release from Holtec International, the waste will be stored entirely below ground in specially designed canisters that will not require any utilities, such as electricity or water.

“The subterranean stored contents emit virtually zero radiation dose to the facility workers and surrounding environment,” according to the company’s press release. “(The storage system) provides the nation a single dry storage system to store all of the nation’s used fuel and high-level waste in a below-grade, monitored, retrievable, interim storage facility that provides maximum protection against terrorism and natural disasters.”

Nuclear and environmental groups across the state immediately reacted to the news of Holtec’s application acceptance by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for review.

Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, was critical of  proposal.

"This is more evidence of how New Mexico is being targeted to be the country's sacrifice zone for radioactive wastes, but now with the most lethal kind in highly irradiated nuclear reactor rods. This is especially ironic given that our state has never had a commercial nuclear power plant,” Coghlan said. “The Land of Enchantment! First in nuclear weapons and radioactive wastes, second to last in child well-being."

ELEA Chairman John Holton, during a 2015 announcement of the project, said the facility, if approved, will solve a very “perplexing problem.”

“We are very excited about the development of this partnership with Holtec International, who we believe has the premier interim storage system in the world,” Heaton said. “We are very proud of the fact that Holtec and us will be working together to solve what has become one of the most perplexing problems in the U.S.”