Allies Move to Block High-Level Radioactive Waste Targeted for New Mexico

Jan 29, 2019

  Commentary: Ten organizations* and two industry groups** blasted Holtec International's application*** to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a license to build and operate the world's largest nuclear waste dump in New Mexico. The waste, from commercial nuclear power is currently at the reactor sites where it was produced. Opening a high-level waste dump, if licensed, would lead to tens of thousands of ongoing high level radioactive waste shipments on rail, truck and boat for decades. Deadly containers would pass through nearly 90% of U.S. Congressional districts including neighborhoods, cities, farmlands, lakes, rivers and ocean-fronts. The waste is the hottest, most concentrated atomic waste from the nuclear fuel chain, misleadingly dubbed "spent" fuel.  This radioactive waste can cause death in minutes if unshielded, and remains radioactive for literally millions of years; it is one of the most deadly materials on Earth.

The organizations are demanding that the NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board halt the Holtec licensing because it is illegal. The federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as Amended, only allows the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to take ownership of irradiated nuclear fuel at an operating permanent geologic repository. Such a title and liability transfer to DOE at the "interim" site proposed by Holtec, is not allowed. The wise precaution was included in the law to safeguard against an "interim" surface site becoming de facto permanent in the absence of a permanent repository. The Holtec site  would not be suitable for long-term isolation and, in the view of those challenging Holtec, it is also not suitable for short-term storage.

The Holtec license application says the lethal waste at the site would be owned by either the Department of Energy (DOE) or the nuclear utility companies that made it. But at the hearing, Holtec's lawyer, Jay Silberg, admitted that under current law DOE cannot take title and ownership of the waste at an "interim" centralized storage site. This makes the proposal unrealistic. 

Diane Curran, attorney for Beyond Nuclear, said "We should not even have to argue this hypothetical case. We call on the licensing board to dismiss the application."

Attorney Terry Lodge, representing seven organizations from California to New York and Michigan to New Mexico charged that, "The Holtec proposal is a corporate welfare trough that will make the nuclear waste problem in this country worse, putting millions of people along transport routes at unnecessary risk."

Sierra Club lawyer Wallace Taylor, argued against the segmented licensing stating that, "It is irresponsible and illegal to grant a license for 20, 40 or 60 years and ignore that the waste will be dangerous for centuries longer with no plans to continue managing and isolating it."

Holtec admitted they do not have a way to repair cracked storage and transport canisters but stated that since they are not expecting cracked canisters they don't have to prepare to deal with them. 

Major questions were raised about how waste would get to New Mexico (which has no commercial nuclear power reactors); how long it would stay (forever?); who would pay; and who would be liable for the statistically-inevitable accidents and radioactive releases, both in transit and at the site. 

Alliance For Environmental Strategies (AFES), based in southeastern New Mexico, is charging that the siting violates principles of environmental justice and that Holtec's Environmental Report is totally inadequate in this regard.

Given admissions by Holtec, it seems that nuclear power companies would have to keep title, pay to transport the waste and remain economically and legally liable, which they will not be willing to do. This makes funding for the Holtec dump operation and eventual closure highly questionable. 

Diane D’Arrigo, Radioactive Waste Project Director at Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said “New Mexico could end up holding the bag, threatening the thriving industries already in the region including dairy, pecan farming and ranching. Mixing high-level radioactive waste with the booming Permian Basin oil and gas industry is a recipe for disaster. Everyone along the transport routes would be at personal and economic risk because all insurance policies expressly state they will not cover radioactive accidents or incidents. Check your own auto, renters and homeowners policies,” she advised.

Approximately 40 objections were filed, including environmental racism/injustice; danger of contaminating water; inadequate radioactive waste containers and storage systems; no ability to inspect, monitor or repackage damaged fuel and containers; condition of the waste after extended storage; eventual decommissioning costs and funding; next destination of the waste when the temporary storage license expires and unnecessary transport dangers.

Curran stated that "Holtec's environmentally reckless, poorly conceived dump proposal is an environmental, economic fiasco for the State of New Mexico and for communities all across the country from nuclear power reactors to the Holtec site."

The 3 judge panel will decide in about 45 days, mid-March to early April, 2019, who will have standing and which objections will be considered. 



 *Organizations: Public Citizen, Sierra Club, Beyond Nuclear, Alliance for Environmental Strategies (NM), Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination (MI), Citizens Environmental Coalition (NY), Don’t Waste Michigan (MI), Mothers for Peace (CA), Nuclear Energy Information Service (IL), Nuclear Issues Study Group (NM)**Industries: Faskin Oil, NAC International

*** Holtec International’s HI–STORE Consolidated Interim Storage Facility (CISF) Project, NRC Docket No. 72-1051; Federal Register / Vol. 83, No. 95 / Wednesday, May 16, 2018