New Mexico Governor Condemns DOE Plan for Nuclear Waste Storage Site

The governor's opposition does not kill the project but it does set up political hurdles that figure to be formidable.
by | June 11, 2019 AT 7:44 AM
People wander on the beach near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
People wander on the beach near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Clemente, Calif. (MCT/Los Angeles Times/Mark Boster)

By Rob Nikolewski

A proposed interim storage facility in a remote area of New Mexico that has been seen as a possible destination to take commercial nuclear waste from sites such as the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station suffered a major setback over the weekend after the state's governor came out against the project.

In a letter to the heads of the U.S. Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham did not pull any punches, saying the $2.4 billion project poses an "unacceptable risk" for the oil, gas and agriculture industries surrounding the site and its construction would amount to "economic malpractice."

"Any disruption of agricultural or oil and gas activities as a result of a perceived or actual incident would be catastrophic to New Mexico, and any steps toward siting such a project could cause a decrease in investment in two of our state's biggest industries," the first-term Democratic governor said in her letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry and NRC chairwoman Kristine Svinicki.

The governor's opposition does not kill the project but it does set up political hurdles that figure to be formidable.

New Mexico's previous governor, Republican Susana Martinez, supported the project that, if built, would store up to 500 canisters and 8,680 metric tons of high-level and low-level spent fuel from nuclear plants across the country in its first stages of completion and eventually store more than 100,000 metric tons of waste.

The Eddy-Lea Alliance, named for two New Mexico counties, and New Jersey-based Holtec International have filed an application with the NRC to construct the facility on about 960 acres in a remote area between the towns of Carlsbad and Hobbs. The application for a 40-year license is under review.

Despite Lujan Grisham's opposition, John Heaton, vice president of the Eddy-Lea Alliance, said his group will proceed.

"We want to have some really good technical discussions with her about risk," Heaton said in a telephone interview. "I think there may be a lot of hyperbole that's out in the world today about nuclear materials and the nuclear industry that is incorrect. I'm hoping by presenting her with the facts that she will think differently about it."

The New Mexico project is one of three commonly discussed as places where the nation's growing stockpile of nuclear waste accumulated by existing and shuttered nuclear power plants -- including the 3.55 million pounds at San Onofre -- could be deposited. The others are Yucca Mountain in Nevada and an interim site in West Texas.

The massive facility at Yucca Mountain was designed as a permanent location to house waste from nuclear power plants. Long opposed by Nevada's delegation on Capitol Hill, the project the federal government has already spent $19 billion on had its funding cut by the Obama administration. The federal government was supposed to begin taking nuclear waste for disposal at the end of 1998.

Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, both Republicans, have pushed legislation to reopen the site. The Trump administration has also expressed interest in restarting Yucca.

But the politics surrounding Yucca Mountain have always been problematic, which has led to discussion of sending waste to "consolidated interim storage" facilities that could be built in isolated locations with consent from local and state governments for as long as a few decades until a permanent site is found.

Like the proposed New Mexico site, the project in West Texas would be an interim site. The project's owner, Waste Control Specialists, already operates a 14,000-acre facility in Andrews, Texas, and has filed a license application with the NRC for the interim site.

Proponents of both the West Texas and New Mexico projects say their facilities could be up and running by the early 2020s.

David Victor, chairman of the San Onofre power plant's Engagement Panel and a professor of international relations at UC San Diego, said the New Mexico governor's decision underscores the need for a process that leads to a greater number of potential locales across the country willing to consider accepting used fuel.

The New Mexico governor's letter "doesn't mean that site is off the table, but I would say it means people who are agitating and want to move the spent fuel out of San Onofre in a responsible way ... need to really understand that we need to be pushing for more sites," Victor said. "Right now, we've done very little to encourage investigation of other sites. We've been kind of allowing the industry to do that and the industry has come up with two sites."

Legislation in the House of Representatives pushed by lawmakers including Reps. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, and Scott Peters, D-San Diego, calls for $25 million to fund a consolidated interim storage program through the Department of Energy. Part of a larger appropriations bill, the funding contains $10 milion to start the program, $10 million for site preparation and $5 million for a transportation plan.

"This is a long game we're playing," Victor said. "Right now you've got the New Mexico site moving along in the licensing process; you've got the West Texas site moving along in the licensing process. We don't know which of them are going to survive the politics."

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