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Regulators to begin formal review of planned nuclear waste storage site

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The application to create an underground interim storage site for used nuclear fuel in southeast New Mexico has been deemed complete by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will now begin its detailed review of the proposed project.

The commission sent a letter Wednesday to the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance LLC and Holtec International to inform the partners that it had “docketed” their application for the proposed site, which would store up to 8,680 metric tons of waste for at least 40 years.

“In docketing the application, the NRC has determined the application is sufficiently complete for the staff to begin its detailed safety, security and environmental reviews. Docketing does not indicate approval of the application,” the NRC stated.

The application had originally been submitted by ELEA and Holtec in March, with supplemental information provided in October and December in response to questions from the regulatory group.

The formal acceptance of the application begins a years-long process of public comment and agency review.

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ELEA and Holtec want to build an $2.4 billion underground site, known as HI-STORE CIS, about halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs to store 30-year-old used nuclear fuel until permanent storage facilities are created. The used fuel would be shipped to the site from nuclear plants by railway.

ELEA is a partnership of Eddy County, Lea County and the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs. Holtec International has built nuclear waste storage sites for 30 years.

ELEA Chairman John Heaton has called the waste “benign” because of the short life of the radioactive elements of nuclear fuel and has touted the safety of the canisters they would be stored in and the underground facility that would hold them.

He also says the project will be good for the region because it will employ up to 300 people during construction, scheduled to begin in in 2019 or 2020, and as many as 150 people after it begins operations, expected to be in 2022. The region also would receive federal monies for roads or other public projects if the site is developed.

The group’s plans have drawn opposition from many environmental activists, some of whom gathered in Roswell in early December to talk about their concerns for the environment and public health in case of accidents or leakages and to develop strategies to stop the project.

Efforts by some of those activists led the Lake Arthur City Council to pass a resolution in September announcing its opposition to nuclear waste storage facilities in New Mexico or nearby Texas or to the transportation of nuclear waste on New Mexico railways and highways.

In response to the NRC’s announcement of its acceptance of the Holtec application, the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club based in Albuquerque said it would be part of the process to express its views about the risks of transporting waste.

“The Sierra Club will participate in the NRC process because of its concerns about Holtec’s proposal to move these canisters into a ‘temporary’ location until a longer-term solution is determined,” its statement indicated. “Minimizing movement of the radioactive waste will minimize risk. Moving the waste twice — once to a temporary location, and then to a permanent location — will maximize risk to workers and citizens living near transport routes.”

Neither the NRS website nor ELEA website listed any upcoming public meetings, but the Sierra Club news release said it expected public meetings could begin as soon as April.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.