Monday, March 27, 2023

Kick the Nuclear Waste Can to the Next Generation

Legislators Try to Thwart NRC Plan to Dump Nation's Nuclear Waste on New Mexico

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Creating an above ground interim storage facility (CISF) for nuclear waste simply kicks the can down the road for the next generation to tackle. New Mexico legislators are focused on stopping nuclear waste, including spent fuel, from power plants across the United States from being dumped in an above ground facility near Carlsbad. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has decided to put 173,600 tons of nuclear waste above ground on top of the earthquake prone Permian Basin, in a CISF.

The Senate Judiciary Committee just heard SB-53 introduced by Senator Jeff Steinborn (D-Doña Ana). The bill and its companion bill, counties, would amend the state’s Radioactive & Hazardous Materials Act to prohibit state agencies from issuing permits to store high-level radioactive waste. SB-53 was recently advanced by the Senate Conservation Committee on a 6-1 vote and was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration before a vote on the Senate Floor. Bernalillo and Doña Ana counties recently passed resolutions in opposition to the CISF. The resolution opposed transporting the waste through the county and called on lawmakers to pass a bill to block its construction.

New Mexico’s Radioactive Waste Consultation Task Force would be expanded under SB- 53 to include, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management; the secretary of the Department of Indian Affairs and the commissioner of public lands. Previously the task force only dealt with federal facilities; under the bill they would also deal with private facilities.

Steinborn said the storage facility was not something that New Mexico asked for, although some people in the Carlsbad area support it. The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance composed of city and county leaders from Carlsbad, Hobbs, Eddy and Lea counties own the land near Carlsbad and Hobbs in the Permian Basin where the CISF would be placed. The Alliance recruited Holtec International to propose a plan for a nuclear waste site. A recent poll by the Center for Civic Policy and the Center for Civic Action showed that 60% of voters surveyed oppose the project, including those living in southeastern New Mexico where the site would be located.

None of leaders of western states want the nuclear waste . The Western Governors Association passed a resolution that demands no CISF be built or operated within a state without written consent from that state’s governor. Governor Lujan Grisham has called the CISF “economic malpractice” for its potential of imperiling nearby oil and gas operations and asked New Mexico lawmakers for 2023 legislation to block it.

Holtec’s plan is that nuclear waste shipments would arrive at the final rail spur through Clovis, Portales, Roswell, and Carlsbad after coming in through all parts of the state. During the public comment period, a representative from Holtec said the transportation and storage of radioactive waste would be done in a safe manner and that it is extremely unlikely that anything would happen that could lead to the radioactive material being released into the environment.

According to the NRC environmental impact statement, there would be up to 13 rail accidents for the 10,000 shipments of nuclear waste shipped to New Mexico from around the nation. The NRC plans to ship it anyway. Beside possible rail accidents, other risks include radiation contamination by truck while transporting the waste, storage canister failure, potential sinkholes opening up, playa lakes and aquifer contamination. 

And then, there is also the fact that the Permian Basin, where the above ground CISF would be located, has been experiencing earthquakes recently due to the impacts fracking for oil and gas has on the underground structures of the earth. Even if oil and gas fracking were to stop tomorrow, movement of underground plates could happen ten years later. 

$2 Million Per Day to Store Nuclear Waste

The NRC said on Jan. 26 it planned to issue a license decision for Holtec in March. If the SB-53 gets approved, Holtec would not be able to store radioactive waste unless it received consent from the state of New Mexico. The waste is currently at reactor sites around the country and utility companies are paid around $2 million a day in taxpayer money to store the radioactive nuclear waste.

Steinborn said that federal law requires the construction of a deep geological storage facility for permanent disposal of radioactive waste from power plants. “We’re saying, until that exists, we do not want to become the de-facto (storage location),” he said.

For over 40 years the US Energy Department has been trying to prove the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada would be a safe place to put highly radioactive waste shipped in from power plants around the nation. Approximately $15 billion was spent conducting studies and drilling a 5-mile U-shaped test tunnel to see if the nation’s nuclear waste could be buried safely for thousands of years at the site. The cost of building the facility is estimated at $100 billion. They hit a legislative wall trying to complete the project and not much has been done to develop the underground site in the past ten years.

“The timelines for these things are quite long compared to what we’re used to in an instant gratification world. But in general, I’m optimistic,” says Rob Howard, the national technical director for Integrated Waste Management based out of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He spent two decades of his career working on the technical side of Yucca Mountain, which had been the most widely touted potential site for permanent disposal.

Why Nuclear?

Nuclear power provides about 20% of electricity in the U.S., accounting for about half the nation’s carbon-free energy. Most of the 93 reactors operating in the country are east of the Mississippi River. There is a renewed interest in nuclear energy as a source of energy that does not emit climate-warming carbon dioxide. That means there’s also renewed interest in figuring out the waste problem.

NRC has said that current storage technology would be sufficient for 100 years. So far, the government has paid $9 billion to utility companies for their interim storage costs and the Department of Energy’s Agency Finance Report estimates it will cost another $30.9 billion until a permanent waste disposal option is completed in the United States.

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