Mock canisters of high-level nuclear waste roll down New Mexico roads: Will real ones be next?

By KAY MATTHEWS

Activists in Santa Fe inflated mock canisters of high-level nuclear waste on Saturday, April 14 to draw attention to the proposed shipment and storage of irradiated waste from nuclear power plants to southeastern New Mexico. The canisters remind me of those ancient ones used in department stores sent up through pipes to hidden upstairs offices by clerks on the floor—except those were filled with money and weighed a couple of pounds and these are filled with radioactive waste and weigh 400,000 pounds.

Holtec International and Eddy Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA) has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a license to construct and operate a storage site between Hobbs and Carlsbad, New Mexico to store up to 100,000 metric tons of nuclear reactor waste for up to 120 years (40 years through initial licensing and 80 years for license extension). Another company, Waste Control Specialists, has applied to store 40,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste on the Texas/New Mexico border near Eunice, NM.

Why New Mexico, you might ask? Are there any nuclear power plants in New Mexico? No. Has New Mexico become a national sacrifice zone? Yes. Leona Morgan, Diné activist and co-founder of Nuclear Issues Study Group , puts it this way: “Starting with uranium mining and milling—to modern weapons production, uranium enrichment, and storage of low-level and transuranic waste [at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant], New Mexico has been targeted as a national sacrifice zone for too long. . . . New Mexico is the birthplace of nuclear colonialism.”

The NRC has already scheduled scoping meetings to develop an Environmental Impact Statement (I’ve listed the schedule below). Holtec’s proposal would allow storage of the 78,000 metric tons of irradiated fuel already produced plus all that is likely to be generated in the future. How is this fuel going to get to southeastern New Mexico? Mostly by train, but barge and truck transport is possible. The intended routes won’t be designated and approved by the Department of Transportation until 2022 when licensing could be complete. In a press release issued by Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen, one of the groups opposing this proposal, had this to say: “Transportation of radioactive nuclear waste is a train wreck waiting to happen.” These irradiated fuel rods still contain most of the original uranium along with radioactive strontium, cesium, and plutonium, which remains toxic for a quarter of a million years. A Department of Energy analysis of train transport to the proposed Yucca Mountain site anticipated an accident rate of at least one per 10,000 shipments.

If approved, this storage proposal puts the kibosh on finding a permanent dumpsite: the Nevada congressional delegation fought the inadequate Yucca Mountain site for years and have thus far succeeded. Storage sites like these two in New Mexico/Texas would likely become de facto permanent sites for the entire country. The other option—the least risky—is to keep nuclear reactor waste in its area of origin, at the reactor site where it’s created. Most of these sites are now licensed to store waste for 60 years past decommissioning.

In addition to the many groups actively opposing this proposal—under the umbrella of No Nuclear Waste—twenty-one members of the New Mexico House of Representatives sent a letter to the NRC and Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry asking the commission “to allow time for New Mexico Legislators and state agencies to examine potential impacts and policy recommendations related to the proposed Consolidated Interim High-Level Radioactive Waste Storage Site facility.” They request that what is a typical 45-day comment period during the scoping process be extended so that the 2019 legislature and state agencies can review “critical issues” in the appropriate committees. Their issues include: analysis of transportation routes; state permitting; potential liability to the state; emergency preparedness; water contamination risks; seismic concerns; contamination risks to other industries; and longevity and viability of the transportation and storage canisters.

This last concern—longevity and viability of the transportation and storage canisters—is particularly worrisome. According to the San Onofre Safety website,  which monitors the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California, Holtec’s plan to store the waste in thin-walled stainless steel canisters and double stack them in steel-lined holes is an experimental system that has never been approved by the NRC. The website claims that U.S. utility companies started using thin-wall canisters for short-term cost savings and that they cannot be inspected, repaired, or replaced.

The legislative letter also points out that exposure to spent fuel rods can be lethal and lesser radiation exposure can lead to birth defects, genetic damage, and various kinds of cancer. It also cites the transportation risks and the need for detailed information on the proposed routes through New Mexico.

The mock canister tour doesn’t stop in Santa Fe. Check out the Nuclear Issues Study Group Facebook page for tour updates.

Comments can be submitted to the NRC at www.regulations.gov Docket ID NRC-2018-0052; or by mail:

May Ma, Office of Administration,
Mail Stop: TWFN-7-A60M
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, D.C. 20555-0001

Schedule of hearings:

• April 25, 7 to 9 pm, NRC headquarters, 11555 Rockville Pike in Rockville, MD

• April 30, 4 to 7 pm, Eastern New Mexico University—Roswell Campus, Campus Union Building—Room 110, 48 University Blvd. in Roswell, NM

• May 1, 7 to 10 pm, Lea County Event Center, 5101 N. Lovington Highway in Hobbs, NM

• May 3, 7 to 10 pm at Eddy County Fire Service, 1400 Commerce St. in Carlsbad, NM

For more information go to www.NoNuclearWaste.org

 

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One comment

  1. Thanks Kay–good piece, for I had wondered about the shape of the giant thing at the Railyard recently. I think I told you about my brother, whom we think was a downwinder? I’m also in touch with Tina Cordova of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders group. Come see us. Jim

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