A nuclear waste storage site proposed in southeast New Mexico crossed another hurdle toward a license, after a federal report issued Wednesday found no environmental concerns in the construction or operations of the facility.
Holtec International proposed the facility, which would temporarily hold up to 100,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods from reactors around the county at the surface, in a remote area near the Eddy-Lea county line.
The facility would serve as an interim measure as a permanent repository for the waste was developed.
Such a disposal facility does not exist in the U.S. after a proposal for one at Yucca Mountain, Nevada was blocked by the federal government amid public outcry and opposition in that state.
Holtec applied for a license for the facility from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which issued the latest report, and will ultimately make a decision on licensing the storage site at a later date.
In a statement, the NRC said it recommended issuance of the license, pending an upcoming review of the plans for their safety to human life.
“Based on its environmental review, the NRC staff recommends issuing the license, subject to the determinations in the staff’s safety review of the application,” read the statement.
The proposal drew condemnation from New Mexico’s State leadership including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham who called Holtec’s proposal “economic malpractice” as she worried it could risk oil and gas operations in the region along with agriculture.
Opposition also came from Lujan Grisham’s cabinet, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office which filed a lawsuit to block the license, and the New Mexico State Land Office.
But the NRC repeatedly appeared supportive of the project and proposals like it after the Commission issued a license to Interim Storage Partners for a similar, but smaller project at the company’s existing facility in Andrews, Texas – a rural town at the state’s border to New Mexico.
The issuance of that license also drew opposition from Texas Gov. Greg Abbot and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) who both argued the storage of high-level nuclear waste amid the oilfields of the Permian Basin could impede the fossil fuel industry.
But the final environmental impact statement (EIS) issued by the NRC contended the facility, known as a consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) would pose no risk to the environment or any nearby industries.
The initial application for the license would allow up to 8,680 metric tons of the waste, to be brought into New Mexico via rail and stored in cannisters extending 40 feet beneath the surface, as the first of 20 phases of the project.
Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway, a supporter of the project, said it would also bring economic diversity to the region which is heavily reliant on oil and gas production and that the NRC’s report proved that could be done with minimal environmental impact.
“The NRC’s final environmental impact statement confirms that the HI-STORE CISF will have no negative impact on our community,” Janway said. “Holtec has been a true partner on this important project, and we look forward to continuing to work together to bring jobs and economic growth to the area.”
Holtec was recruited and the land, about 1,000 acres east of Carlsbad, was provided the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA) – a consortium of the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs and Eddy and Lea counties.
ELEA Vice Chairman John Heaton said the NRC’s report was one of the final steps towards issuance of a license for the facility he said would bring $3billion in investments and up to 350 jobs to the community.
“Our area cannot stand still – we must continue to innovate and expand economic opportunities for our hard-working residents,” Heaton said. “This is a great day for ELEA, the Holtec team and southeastern New Mexico, as it is the beginning of the final steps leading to a license.”
Holtec Chief Executive Officer Kris Singh said the Holtec facility, if built and activated, would provide a solution to the national problem addressing waste resulting from nuclear power production.
“By establishing the HI-STORE CISF, Holtec offers the Nation a structurally impregnable, below-ground, disaster-immune, essentially zero dose emitting, and visually inconspicuous facility that will have zero impact on the local oil, gas or potash mining operations or the lives of local farmers and ranchers, while creating well-paying clean energy jobs in the host communities, Singh said in a statement.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.