A group of about 40 environmental activists and non-nuclear waste organizers, including people from Roswell, are deciding how best to protest a planned interim storage site in Lea County for spent nuclear fuel.
Proponents say the project will benefit the nation as it seeks solutions to a costly problem about disposing of waste and will benefit the region in terms of jobs and federal money for local projects.
They also contend the spent fuel is “benign, passive” due its age, but those opposed to the site don’t agree.
“It is dangerous to the groundwater if there ever was a leak, and transportation to the site will actually cross most of the southeast part of the county,” said Rose Gardner of Eunice.
A board member of the Alliance for Environmental Strategies, Gardner said she has been opposing nuclear and radioactive enterprises since 2003 after the opening of an uranium enrichment facility by UNRECO in Eunice that she says has caused economic problems for the area.
She also said a valuable lesson has been learned by the radioactive waste repository near Carlsbad, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. One of its waste containers ruptured in 2014, leading to what was believed to be a small release of radioactive emissions into the air and causing operations to cease for more than a year.
The Saturday meeting in Roswell at North Main hotel brought together college students, faith leaders and people from various New Mexico advocacy groups. Those included the Alliance for Environmental Strategies, the Sierra Club, Beyond Nuclear, Nuclear Watch New Mexico, the Nuclear Issues Study Group, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment. A few representatives from groups in other states also attended.
Most who talked during a morning introductory session indicated that they want to keep radioactive and nuclear waste facilities out of New Mexico, but specifically oppose the site being developed by the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance LLC and Holtec International.
The project on a thousand acres halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs was approved by elected officials in the counties of Eddy and Lea and the cities of Hobbs and Carlsbad about 18 months ago. Project developers have submitted an application for a license to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and are now responding to questions from the commission.
Once the application is deemed complete, the public, especially residents living within 50 miles of the proposed site, will be able to provide comments to regulators and authorities, said former lobbyist Tom “Smitty” Smith. The people at the meeting intend to be prepared, he said.
“We are facing a similar fight near Andrews, Texas, and, working with others, we have forced a pause in that application,” he said. “Together our communities can gain strength working together, learning from one another. … Over the years, we have managed to stop 4 reactors from being built in Texas and 17 of 22 coal plants,” he said.
The activists and opponents had a range of views but most shared the idea that nuclear and radioactive waste represents a threat to the health of people, to the environment and to wildlife. They contend that canisters used to store the materials are not safe enough and will decay over time and that facilities and companies involved in storing and transporting waste have never proven infallible to problems, including leaks and accidents. Potential terrorist attacks are also a concern, some said.
Some also argue that the nuclear industry and federal officials are taking advantage of the economic need and, in some cases, the lack of information or knowledge on the part of state residents, especially indigenous populations, to use southeastern New Mexico as a dumping ground for the nation’s dangerous waste. Others talked about the need now to make decisions that will benefit future generations.
“What constitutes consent,” one person asked, “if future generations that will be impacted aren’t here to give consent.”
ELEA Chairman John Heaton of the Carlsbad Department of Development said Holtec and ELEA will be holding meetings with the public soon.
“In the near future, we plan to do some formal outreach, not only locally but across the state,” he said. “We don’t have that completely formulated. We don’t want to get too far out ahead of our headlights. We are thinking maybe the first part of the year, we need to start reaching out to people and have town hall meetings in various communities. … I think it is important to know and understand what we are doing. … If people have good ideas, we would like to hear them, anything that would improve things, make things safer and more secure.”
He added that he is willing to meet with the people who gathered in Roswell if invited.
Heaton said the project has broad support from people in Eddy and Lea counties and characterizes the storage of the 30-year-old spent fuel as benign and passive because the waste decays rapidly over time, losing the radioactive and thermal properties that make it dangerous.
He said the $2.4 billion site will solve an urgent issue for the nation and be an economic boon to the region. He estimated that the project will employ about 300 people during its construction, which is slated to start in 2019, and will have 150 people on its payroll on a permanent basis once operations begin in 2020 or 2021.
He added that the region also will receive money for state highways and for communities from the federal government for operating the site.
The site is needed, he said, because nuclear plants have sued the federal government and will receive more than $20 billion in settlements because the Department of Energy has yet to provide a permanent disposal site or temporary storage sites for waste that are off-site of the nuclear reactor plants. In 2014, a government commission proposed the development of consolidated interim storage sites until a permanent disposal site could be developed.
Heaton said ELEA felt their land suited the purpose. He called it a “perfect” location, 35 miles from a populated area, geologically stable, in a dry climate and near a “robust” rail system.
Holtec International, he said, has three decades of prior experience in creating such sites and would build an underground storage facility and use sturdy casks for the storage that would be checked periodically to ensure the soundness and integrity of the materials. Transportation by rail cars will be done with many different safeguards. He also said that security to the site would include fences, guards, video surveillance and facility safety measures. He added that all facets of operations must meet the standards of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, what he called the “most diligent and toughest” nuclear regulator in the United States.
“We think it is needed nationally and, because of WIPP and UNRECO in our area, we have developed somewhat of a nationalistic spirit in our communities, recognizing the need to solve some of the problems that are costing taxpayers billions,” he said. “We think it is a good, clean, safe industry for our area. It is temporary. The spend fuel will eventually be removed to a depository.”
He added, “There is an economic benefit for the government and taxpayers nationally, and there is certainly an economic benefit to our region.”
From comments expressed Saturday, those opposed to the site stand ready to debate Heaton on all those points.
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at email@example.com.