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Meeting on Holtec proposal fills conference room; Opinions polarized on plan to store nuclear waste in southeast New Mexico

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Every seat was filled for a public meeting at on the ENMU-R regarding Holtec International's proposal to build a nuclear waste storage facility in southeast New Mexico. (Timothy P. Howsare Photo)

These two words demonstrate how polarized opinions were at a public meeting Monday night at ENMU-Roswell hosted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to hear comments on a proposed interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel: “Benign” and “genocide.”

A conference room in the Campus Union Building was filled to its capacity of 95. There were around 50 people who requested to speak, each given four minutes to offer their support for the project or say why they want the NRC to deny the application by Holtec International, the private corporation requesting a 40-year license to store solid nuclear waste on a site in Lea County about halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the initial request is for storage of up to 8,680 metric tons of waste.

But according to a Holtec official, the “ultimate target” is for up to 100,000 metric tons of spent rods. If the company’s application is approved, the high-level nuclear waste would be stored at the interim facility “until a permanent storage option is available.”

The NRC was the facilitator at the meeting and told the Roswell Daily Record that it is a neutral regulatory agency.

“Our role is to evaluate whether the proposal meets the safety and environmental requirements of U.S. law,” said David McIntyre, an NRC spokesperson who was interviewed by the Daily Record during an open house that preceded the public forum.

Both sides of the issue were represented at the open house.

Bobbi Riedel, a doctoral student in nuclear physics attending the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, was there with five other UNM students to speak in favor of the proposed storage site.

“We’ve come down here from Albuquerque to inform people about nuclear safety,” she said. “I think this is a perfectly safe project.”

She said storing nuclear facility at the site would save taxpayers about $30 billion a year.

Wearing a blue T-shirt that said, “No Holtec International,” Melanie Deason of Roswell said she is against the project.

“I can sum up Holtec in one word — ‘genocide,’” she said.

Deason said that among her concerns were transportation, geology, water issues and the Rio Grande Compact, an interstate compact to equitably portion the waters of the Rio Grande Basin between New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.

“I don’t think Texas wants radioactivity in their food chain,” she said.

Deason also was on the list of speakers.

Holtec’s plan has strong support from the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance — a consortium that includes the two adjacent counties, as well as the cities of Hobbs and Carlsbad.

John Heaton, a spokesperson for the alliance, said that there is a tremendous demand for the proposed storage facility because all across the country nuclear-generating stations are storing nuclear waste on site, which pose risks to the public.

“Nuclear waste is being stored near rivers, lakes, oceans and seismic areas (places prone to earthquakes),” he said. “About one-third of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of a nuclear plant.”

He said while Holtec’s proposal is not a permanent solution to nuclear waste storage, when a permanent site is built in will most likely be in the western U.S., possibly Nevada, and not in the east. He said it makes sense to only have to move the waste one time on a cross-country trip.

“It makes sense to do it today,” said Heaton, who lives in Carlsbad.

He said the facility would be 30 feet underground and have three feet of concrete underneath the storage vessels and three feet of concrete above them, making them impervious to any kind of weather or a terrorist attack.

He said the nuclear fuel would be cooled by convection, so there would be no moving parts that could break.

“It is going to be benign,” Heaton said. “It just sits there and gets cooler.”

Al Squire, a member of the Dairy Producers of New Mexico who said he was attending as a private citizen, had a much different opinion on the self-ventilating cooling system.

He said the temperature of the fuel rods stored at the site would be between 200 to 700 degrees.

“What happens if it plugs up?” he said. “Murphy’s Law says it will happen. We could have another Chernobyl or Fukushima (a nuclear disaster that occurred in Japan in 2012 after a tsunami pummeled the coastline).”

Helen Henderson, a rancher from Chaves County, stressed the impact the facility could have agriculture and gas and oil, which are the stalwarts of the economy in southeast New Mexico.

She said while the Holtec facility would only provide 55 permanent jobs in New Mexico, ranching, farming, gas and oil combined provide 23,000.

If an accident occurred, Henderson said, “It would destroy New Mexico.”

Staff from the NRC spoke first at the public meeting, outlining the timetable and requirements of the application process.

Cinthya Roman of the NRC gave an introduction first in Spanish then in English.

The forum was called a “scoping meeting,” in which the NRC records and evaluates comments from the public.

In consideration to those who traveled from out of town to the Roswell meeting, the NRC allowed speakers from Albuquerque, El Paso and Las Cruces to talk first.

The first speaker was Sister Joan Brown, a Franciscan nun from Albuquerque.

She said in the Christian tradition the desert is a place where people find God and not a wasteland.

She then spoke of “environmental justice,” not just for humans but for all living things.

“A life is a life and it is not dispensable,” she said. “In this state we have a history of not respecting that.”

Brown referred to a group who call themselves the “Downwinders,” who say that they, along with their preceding generations, have been contaminated by the radioactive fallout from the 1945 test explosion at the Trinity Site near Alamogordo. She added that uranium workers in New Mexico also have been harmed by radiation and that Holtec’s proposed facility is located in an area with predominantly low incomes and a majority Hispanic population.

Founded in 1986, Holtec provides solutions for managing the backend of the nuclear power cycle for commercial nuclear power plants.

The company is headquartered in New Jersey and has locations throughout the world, including Pennsylvania and Florida.

Another public meeting will be held today in Hobbs tonight and third meeting will be held Thursday in Carlsbad.

The public also can mail comments to the NRC at One White Flint North Building, 11555 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Maryland 20852–2738, or post comments online at regulations.gov. The deadline for public comments is May 29.

NRC officials said a transcript of the meetings should be posted on their website within two or three weeks.

Community News reporter Timothy P. Howsare can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or vistas@rdrnews.com.