Radioactive waste from two Michigan nuclear power plants could be sent to southeast New Mexico where a temporary repository was planned to be built amid oilfields and ranchlands of the desert region.
Holtec International announced it acquired the Palisades facility in Covert, Michigan in the southwest region of the state and Big Rock Point, a nuclear power facility in Charlevoix, Michigan in the northern portion of the lower Peninsula.
Palisades was shutdown May 20, after producing nuclear energy for the region for 50 years.
The spent fuel rods were placed in onsite storage and were likely to be shipped to Holtec’s planned consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) near the border of Eddy and Lea counties about 1,400 miles southwest of the reactor.
Big Rock Point was shutdown in 1997 and decommissioned in the early 2000s, and the spent fuel is all that remains at the site and would also be shipped to the New Mexico facility should it be opened for operation.
Both facilities were owned by Entergy Corporation – a nuclear energy company that owns reactors across the country.
The proposed storage facility in New Mexico would ultimately have a capacity to hold up to 100,000 metric tons of spent nuclear at the surface in southeast New Mexico.
Ultimately, the facility was intended to consolidate waste from 75 nuclear sites across the country – many near large bodies of water and high-population zones.
“Holtec expects continuing local community support and emergence of a strong national consensus to consolidate 75 storage facilities scattered across the nation into a single state-of-the art below-the-ground storage facility in a region that provides an incomparably better environmental conditions, safety and security than that afforded by most of the existing locales where the fuel currently resides,” read a statement from the company.
Although the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended issuing a license for Holtec to build the CISF, it saw stiff opposition from New Mexico’s state leadership including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard and Attorney General Hector Balderas who last year announced a lawsuit to block the facility from operating.
Lujan Grisham called the project “economic malpractice” as she contended it could risk New Mexico’s oil and gas industry centered in the region and its Permian Basin oilfields along with farming and ranching in the area.
Criticism also came from government watchdog groups throughout New Mexico and Michigan for Holtec’s proposal in New Mexico and its acquisition of the Michigan sites.
Bette Pierman, president of Michigan Safe Energy Future-Shoreline Chapter in Benton Harbor, Michigan near the Palisades site said decommissioning the facility meant removing all of the remaining nuclear.
She questioned Holtec’s ability to do so safely without contaminating Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes which contain about 21 percent of the world’s surface freshwater.
Kevin Kamps with national group Beyond Nuclear said if the waste is not removed from the Michigan sites, it could leave dangerous contamination for years after.
“We continue to call for a safe and complete decommissioning which requires the removal of all radioactive waste that will likely be stored onsite indefinitely,” Pierman said. “We strongly question Holtec International’s decommissioning proposal with no guarantee of this to safeguard our health and that of our precious Lake Michigan.”
“This abandoned radioactive contamination will flow downstream into Lake Michigan and inland aquifers,” he said. “Radioactivity bio-concentrates up the food chain, endangering current and future generations.”
But Holtec’s solution to the risks nuclear waste poses to Michigan could also imperil New Mexico, critics said, as they worried without a permanent repository in place the proposed CISF could become a “defacto” resting place for the waste – a perpetuity the facility was not designed for.
Its license could be granted as soon as next year by the NRC, which already issued a license last year for a similar facility in Andrews, Texas along New Mexico’s eastern border to that state.
Don Hancock with the Southwest Research and Information Center said Holtec’s pattern of acquiring the rights to closed nuclear facilities before it has an approved plan to store the waste was intended to build its case for licensure.
The company also recently acquired licenses to decommission sites in New Jersey, Massachusetts and California, with plans to also ship spent nuclear fuel from those facilities to the New Mexico site should it become operations.
He said Holtec hoped to see federal law changed so that the government could pay for nuclear waste storage.
Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, Hancock said utility companies must pay for storage while the Department of Energy pays for waste storage.
Under the CISF model, he argued utilities were unlikely to pay for shipping waste to New Mexico if it is already held onsite.
“This is all part of the Holtec lobbying campaign,” Hancock said of the company’s recent license acquisitions in Michigan. “Holtec knows their site in New Mexico doesn’t happen without a change in federal law.
Hancock also questioned why New Mexico should take on the risk of storing the waste.
There are no nuclear power reactors in New Mexico, and transportation without deposal could only increase the risk, Hancock said, of exposing local communities and the environment to radiation.
“If it’s so safe, why don’t the people who have it want to keep it,” Hancock said of the waste. “They’re saying the cannisters will fail on the shores of Lake Michigan, but last forever in New Mexico? Holtec can’t have it both ways.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.