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Residents voice opposition to proposed Holtec site; Project developers speak of ‘negligible risk,’ importance of site

Does the proposed Holtec site in Lea County intended to store used nuclear fuel materials for about 40 years represent an opportunity for the region or an unacceptable risk? State legislators heard from proponents and those opposed at a Friday meeting in Santa Fe. A couple of Chaves County residents gave their opinions. (Submitted Photo)

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Chaves County dairy and oil and gas representatives voiced opposition about a proposed Lea County interim storage site for high-level nuclear materials at a Friday legislative committee meeting in Santa Fe that also included presentations from people who called the project one of “negligible risk” that would benefit the state and the nation.

Oil company partner Thomas Jennings of Roswell and dairy representative Linda Squire of Hagerman, speaking during a public comment period, warned legislators belonging to the Interim Committee on Radioactive and Hazardous Waste that the site proposed for halfway between Hobbs and Carlsbad could spell disaster for their industries and for the region’s natural resources should an accident occur during storage or transportation of the materials.

“We are very worried about a worst-case scenario happening,” said Squire, whose family owns Southwind Dairy. “Murphy’s Law is very real for people in business. Bad things can happen if you let your guard down.”

Jennings, whose company has 35 wells within a “gunshot” of the proposed site, said the area is not, in his opinion, a geologically sound location for nuclear waste storage. He also noted that 45 people who attended a public meeting in Roswell about the project indicated opposition to the idea, while only seven indicated support, six of those seven being students enrolled in nuclear energy programs.

The committee meeting included formal presentations by the developers of the proposed project, Holtec International and the Eddy-Lea County Alliance, as well as by two people speaking against the site, Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste program for the nonprofit organization Southwest Research and Information Center, and Jimmy Carlile, a supervisor with Fasken Oil and Ranch Ltd.

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Holtec’s application to store up to 10,000 canisters underground on 1,000 acres of land is under review now by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Public meetings are ongoing throughout the state, and the public comment period is open until July 30. The NRC review is expected to be completed by July 2020.

John Heaton of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance told legislators that the nation needs a solution to its problem of how to store the used nuclear fuel rods from nuclear plants. Right now, those plants store the spent rods at their facilities, with many of them located on rivers, streams and near oceans. Some decommissioned plants, he said, consist only of the storage sites, with the federal government paying billions each year to the private companies that manage them.

Given that the federal government’s plan to develop a permanent disposal site, Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, is stalled and would take 30 years to bring online, Heaton said, New Mexico would be providing the country a needed service by providing a consolidated site. It also would benefit economically from a $2.4 billion investment that would create new jobs, boost the tax revenue base, bring federal incentives, and improve the quality of life.

“Ladies and gentlemen, there are 64 interim storage facilities that are being run by the private sector. They are not run by the government. This would just be a site that is by itself,” he said.

He also told legislators that the NRC is also considering an application for a site utilizing different technology in West Texas. If that site is approved, New Mexico would bear the responsibility for any crises and accidents, but none of the benefits, he said.

The four-hour meeting covered numerous topics: whether the railways in New Mexico could handle the heavy loads to transport the nuclear materials from the plants to the storage site, with Holtec and Heaton saying that initial discussions have been held and that they could; whether the materials would be owned by the Department of Energy or by Holtec, with Holtec saying that it would prefer that the Energy Department take possession but would do so if needed; and how much risk is involved.

Dr. Stefan Anton, a vice president with Holtec, said that his company has developed and managed about half of the storage sites at U.S. nuclear plants. He told legislators that a cask has never leaked, and that, to his knowledge, there has never been a “radiological incident” involved in the 25,000 shipments of nuclear materials by rail worldwide.

His comments did not calm the concerns of Hancock of Southwest Research or Carlile of Fasken Oil and Ranch, based in Midland, Texas. Hanken expressed his opinion the nuclear materials should stay at or near their current location while Carlile said the risk was too great.

“We don’t believe this issue is a local issue or a state issue. We see this as a regional issue. Neither one of the two sites, based on a variety of concerns, should be approved in our opinion,” he said. “For us to allow even the potential of groundwater contamination — and I’m talking about fresh and bracken water — if we allow even the potential of groundwater contamination, we are cutting our noses off,” he said.

The next public meetings occur in Gallup on Monday and Albuquerque in Tuesday. More information is available at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission website, nrc.gov.

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

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.