Goodbye Yucca? NRC to review New Mexico nuclear waste storage proposal
- The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has agreed to review a spent fuel storage site proposed for New Mexico by a private company, raising the possibility of a solution for a decades-old problem.
- Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, was identified by legislation as a permanent solution in 1987, but has been debated even since. Funding was canceled by the Obama administration in 2010, and continuing development will require significant capital.
- In March 2017, Holtec International submitted an application to construct a facility to store up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, using a canister storage system for a 40-year license term.
Lawmakers are reportedly not going to fund Yucca Mountain development this year, despite a $120 million request from President Trump who has indicated he wants to revive development. That will maintain the status quo for dealing with spent fuel, a process which involves companies suing the federal government to recover their costs.
Processing and storing the spent fuel was supposed to be done by the government under the terms of a 1983 contract. Instead, generators file breach of contract lawsuits to cover the costs, and so far there have been more than 70 judgments resulting in payments to nuclear operators upwards of $6 billion.
Holtec is proposing an interim storage site, and last month the NRC informed the company that it would review the project. Regulators said the application "is sufficiently complete for the staff to begin its detailed safety, security and environmental reviews."
Holtec is just the second private company to file such an application, according to Power Magazine. Waste Control Specialists proposed a site in Texas, but subsequently put its application on hold due to escalating costs.
NRC staff informed Holtec that the cost to review its application would likely reach $7.5 million. The company would use a the Hi-Storm UMAX canister storage system, which stores loaded canisters underground. According to Holtec, the Hi-Storm system "is widely considered by industry experts to be the last word on public safety and security."
The facility would be constructed on 1,000 acres of unused land, about midway between the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, N.M. The company says the area has many advantages, not least of which is being located 35 miles from the nearest populations.
The costs to store spent nuclear fuel are astronomical: The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated the government’s total liability will be $29 billion by 2022, assuming that the government starts accepting nuclear waste by then. Some estimates put the cost as high as $50 billion.
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