- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday granted Holtec International permission to build a facility that can store 500 canisters holding roughly 8,680 tons of high level nuclear waste in Lea County, New Mexico, for 40 years.
- The NRC awarded an away-from-reactor storage license in 2006, but the licensee did not follow through. The Texas-based Interim Storage Partners won a storage license in 2021, but local opposition stymied the project. Holtec’s proposed facility could be the first to see the light of day if it survives legal and grassroots challenges.
- Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D, with other government officials and environmental groups, oppose the project. They worry accidents could cause nuclear waste to escape and endanger nearby communities and are exploring the possibility of a legal challenge based on a state law that passed in March.
The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act required the U.S. Department of Energy to create a permanent repository for the nation’s high level nuclear waste by 1998, but for a number of reasons that still hasn’t happened.
Facilities like the Lea County storage site are intended to contain spent nuclear fuel until the federal government fulfills its obligations, said Holtec spokesperson Patrick O’Brien.
The facility will store waste from nuclear plants all over the country, including several shuttered or decommissioned plants that Holtec owns.
Holtec “said it plans to eventually store up to 10,000 canisters in an additional 19 phases,” NRC said in a news release. “Each expansion phase would require a license amendment with additional NRC safety and environmental reviews.”
Holtec said its subterranean storage system “is so environmentally unobtrusive that all industrial activities such as fracking, drilling and potash mining in the area can continue without obstruction and, as stated in the final environmental impact study, construction of the proposed [consolidated interim storage facility] would not have an effect on oil and gas operations regardless of drilling method.”
Holtec chose Lea County because a local development group, the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, put out a request for proposals and invited the company to visit the region, O’Brien said. The energy alliance hopes the project will bring jobs to the region.
"It's very difficult for rural communities to attract any economic development," said John Heaton, the energy alliance vice chair.
But it’s overwhelmingly opposed by environmental groups and New Mexico’s state government. The state approved a law in March banning nuclear fuel storage, and courts may need to decide if federal approval preempts state law.
Opponents worry about the site’s proximity to oil and gas drilling and the dangers of shipping spent fuel across the country.
In a statement, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called the NRC’s approval “disappointing.”
“It undermines the NRC’s alleged commitment to meaningful engagement with stakeholders, as it appears our concerns were wholly ignored and went unaddressed by Holtec and the NRC,” she said.
The approval process involved a safety and security review, an environmental impact review and an adjudication before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, the NRC said in its news release.
The NRC considered oil and gas drilling during the licensing process and will continue to consider it if it approves construction, NRC spokesperson David McIntyre said.
"The waste is solid," he said "It's not going to seep into the soil."
O’Brien noted that nuclear storage facilities have a solid track record. "This is proven technology," he said.
Terry Lodge, an Ohio attorney representing several groups that oppose the project, said train derailments are common and major rail lines often traverse heavily populated areas.
"While no one is saying that there is a huge risk of an accident, there is some risk of an accident," he said.
Lodge called spent nuclear fuel "quite possibly the most radioactive material imaginable."
O’Brien said the canisters that transport nuclear fuel are designed and tested to withstand all manner of disasters.
“The U.S. Navy moves spent fuel around the country regularly and there has never been an issue,” he said.
Heaton noted Carlsbad, New Mexico, is home to the DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project, a geological repository for nuclear waste from the nation’s nuclear weapon’s program, and has not experienced any problems.