A project to store spent nuclear fuel rods in southeast New Mexico was delayed again after a federal oversight agency was unsatisfied by answers to its questions provided by the proposed facility’s owner.
Holtec International proposed to build the facility near the Eddy-Lea county line to temporarily hold the high-level waste from nuclear power reactors across the country while a permanent repository is developed.
Such a final resting place for the waste does not exist in the U.S., nor is a project to build one underway after the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada was halted under the administration of President Barrack Obama.
That’s why opponents of Holtec’s proposal argued its site, if built and opened, could prove a “defacto” repository for the about 100,000 metric tons of waste the company proposed could be held at the site.
Holtec first applied for a license to build and operate its facility in 2017 through the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission which released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) contending the site would have “minimal” impact on the environment.
As part of the process to finalize the EIS, the NRC sent Holtec a series of requests for additional information (RAIs) seeking more details on the proposal as to its potential.
After finding Holtec’s response to be inadequate to its second round of RAIs issued in May 2021 and a third round from March 23, the NRC via a May 26 reported the project would be delayed again with the final EIS expected in July and a safety evaluation in January 2023.
Both documents were required by the NRC’s licensing process for the site to be built and operate.
Questions in the latest RAI dealt with the proposed facilities integrity should an explosion occur at the site, along with risk mitigation during the transport of the waste to the site, impacts from rain or flooding and calculations for radiation doses emitted by the facility during operation.
The requests also sought information on fuel cannister inspections and impacts of aging to the facility’s infrastructure.
The NRC’s letter specifically pointed to Holtec’s failure in answering questions related to threats from outside the facility, infrastructure needed to move the casks of waste from the rail cars transporting them to the site into storage, and radiation doses emitted.
The Commission planned to be in contact with Holtec officials, the letter read, to get the answers it needed.
“The staff has reviewed your responses to the third RAI and determined that the responses have not sufficiently addressed the staff’s third RAIs related to the evaluation of external hazards, the evaluation of the proposed canister transfer building, and the evaluation of the off-site dose estimate,” the letter read.
“NRC staff will be scheduling additional clarification calls or public meetings with you over the following weeks to discuss the areas where further clarification and/or supplementation is needed for the NRC to complete its review of your application.”
In a statement, Holtec spokesman Joseph Delmar said the company expected the timeline to be revised, and that it would work closely with the NRC to provide the needed information.
“As expected, the NRC issued its letter today advising of the revised review schedule for the HI-STORE Consolidated Interim Storage Facility license,” Delmar said. “Holtec will continue to provide the additional information requested by the NRC, which is part of the normal review process.”
He said Holtec also worked with the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA), a consortium made up of leaders or both counties and their county seats, Carlsbad and Hobbs, in the five years since the application was filed.
Delmar said all parties expected the review process to take years.
“The letter confirms that the final environmental impact statement (EIS) will be published in July 2022, with the safety review and final licensing decision released by January 2023,” Delmar said.
“When Holtec and the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA) began the licensing process in 2017, we knew it would be a long journey and we are pleased that we are near a final licensing decision.”
Nuclear waste site faced series of delays since project’s beginning
This wasn’t the first time the Holtec project was delayed by the NRC after the agency was unsatisfied with the company’s responses.
Records show the first RAIs were issued between March 2018 and January 2021.
The safety review, initially expected to be completed in May 2021 was pushed back in March of that year, and again the following November from a publication date of January 2022.
When the application was first filed, Holtec said it planned to build the facility by 2020.
Since then, another company Interim Storage Partners (ISP) did receive an NRC license for a similar facility just over the state line in Andrews, Texas.
That issuance was subsequently challenged in court and Don Hancock at the Southeast Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque-based government watchdog organization, said Holtec could be “slow-walking” its license process in anticipation of a verdict in the case against ISP.
“It’s cheaper to slow-walk than expensive litigation,” Hancock said. “They (Holtec) are going very slow. They’re way behind schedule with what they said they were going to do.”
Hancock also said the delays indicated Holtec, which holds numerous other licenses from the NRC such as for nuclear storage technology and decommissioning nuclear reactors, could be unreliable when it comes to building offsite storage should the proposed facility n New Mexico come to fruition.
“They said they would provide all the info needed to build the site by 2020. They know what it takes to get a license,” Hancock said. “From a New Mexico perspective, it reinforces concerns that are already there. If they can’t answer basic questions for a license, how can they be expected to handle the license itself.
“It just further shows Holtec doesn’t know what its doing with consolidated interim storage. They’re proving our point.”