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Advocacy group seeks to intervene in nuclear storage site issue


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A national consumer advocacy group has filed a petition of intervention regarding a proposed nuclear waste storage site to be located between Hobbs and Carlsbad, saying that federal regulators “have not listened to the public” about their concerns about the safety of the site and the transportation of radioactive materials.

“There are major risks in the proposed transportation of this high-level and dangerous radioactive waste, including cask leaks, terrorist actions in urban areas, not to mention the inadequacy and many safety concerns with our transportation system,” said Lon Burnam, a former state representative serving Fort Worth, Texas, a Public Citizen member who has joined the intervention action.

Public Citizen, based in Washington, D.C., but with an office in Austin, Texas, announced Friday that it had filed to intervene in the license application submitted by Holtec International to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If the group’s petition is accepted by the federal commission, it would become a party to the matter, able to participate in hearings, and its interests would be considered as well the interest of Holtec.

The Holtec license, submitted in March 2017 and accepted for review by the NRC in February, would allow the company to create a consolidated interim storage facility on about 500 acres in Lea County to store used nuclear fuel rods from decommissioned U.S. nuclear plants. The nuclear waste would be placed inside canisters and stored underground in a secure facility, which has been projected to be completed by 2023. Holtec’s initial license requested authorization to store up to 8,680 metric tons in 500 canisters for a period of up to 40 years. But project officials have said that the storage facility would ultimately be able to store 10,000 canisters and 173,000 metric tons.

Holtec is a multinational corporation that has stored primarily nuclear waste since 1986, although about 15 percent of what it stores is other types of hazardous materials. According to a company presentation before a committee of the New Mexico Legislature in May, the company has never had a leakage of one of its transportation casks or a serious radiological safety incident during transportation in 30 years. Holtec was chosen to build and manage the proposed site on behalf of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, which owns the 1,000 acres on which the project would be located and is made up of the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs and Lea and Eddy counties. Elected officials in those counties and cities have passed resolutions supporting the project.

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ELEA officials and other supporters have said that the project serves a national interest by meeting a federal Blue Ribbon Commission recommendation for such a facility. The lack of storage facilities has led to lawsuits by nuclear utilities against the federal government, actions estimated to cost U.S. taxpayers at least $40 billion.

The benefits of the project, according to ELEA presentations, include jobs and funding to the area. The project would entail an initial $2.4 billion capital investment, millions from the federal government for roads and other infrastructure improvements in the region for many years, increased tax revenues, and 100 construction jobs for 10 years as well as many as 140 permanent full-time jobs.

But the proposed site also has drawn a lot of written and verbal comments in opposition as well. At public meetings in the area, representatives of the dairy industry, the agricultural industry and the oil and gas industry have expressed great concern about the devastation that an accident or leak would have to their businesses and the region’s natural resources, as well as residents.

Public Citizen has been among the groups to oppose the project, and it has indicated that its members and supporters have submitted 10,000 comments to the NRC in opposition to the license.

In its announcement about the intervention action, the organization stated, “Holtec International’s license application refuses to acknowledge the possibility of an accident during transport of the nuclear material, which would occur via rail lines across the U.S. Each rail car will hold more nuclear material than was present in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki during World War II. The routes to transport waste to the proposed site in New Mexico crisscross the U.S., potentially putting people across the country at risk of exposure to radiation. In New Mexico, an accident involving a single car could put anyone within 50 miles of the rail line at risk for exposure to radiation. Holtec’s application insists that an accident is not possible, even though the NRC estimates that an accident with a train carrying nuclear waste will happen on average once every 10,000 trips.”

Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, said that the petition to intervene will “elevate” the voices of the protestors.

“The NRC has not listened to the public,” she said. “If they had, they would know that New Mexico residents and people along the transport routes do not support this proposal.”

John Heaton with the Carlsbad Economic Development Department and spokesperson for the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance was not able to be reached by press time. But in meetings with legislators and in previous statements, he has talked about the project’s merits and provided assurances about that it is a “good, clean, safe” industry.

Among his other points was that the nuclear waste is stored now at decommissioned plants, many near densely populated areas or near oceans, streams and rivers. He also said that the NRC is reviewing an application for another storage facility in Andrews, Texas, about 60 miles from Hobbs. He said if that site is approved, southeast New Mexico would still bear the consequences and costs of any waste-related emergencies or crises in the region, but would not receive any economic or job benefits from the facility.

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