Heaton calls New Mexico ‘very nuclear state’
One of the people seeking to bring a $2.4 billion interim nuclear waste storage facility to southeastern New Mexico has said that he still hopes that he and other members of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance might be able to meet with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to discuss the project, in spite of the letter she sent this week to U.S. government officials, calling the project an “unacceptable risk.”
John Heaton, vice-chair of ELEA and an economic developer with the city of Carlsbad, said he spoke with Lujan Grisham when she was a congresswoman to keep her informed about the project. But he said he would like to meet with her and her cabinet secretaries to discuss the proposed spent nuclear fuel storage facility that would be located in Lea County about halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs.
“Unfortunately, we have not really had a chance to give her a presentation on the project, so that she understands the facts and not just hyperbole,” he said. “This was very disappointing to me. … I frankly have been very enthused about this governor, her enthusiasm and her ability to make things happen, but I think this was the wrong step on her part.”
On Friday, Lujan Grisham took a different stance than her predecessor, former Gov. Susana Martinez, when she publicly released her letter indicating her opposition to the project. Lujan Grisham’s letter was addressed to U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and NRC Chairman Kristine Svinicki.
The project, which would be developed and managed by Holtec International, is being reviewed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a 40-year operating license. At its opening, the facility would store up to 500 canisters and 8,680 metric tons of high-level and low-level commercial nuclear waste. Eventually, the site could store more than 100,000 metric tons of waste with a license renewal beyond 40 years.
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Lujan Grisham gave many reasons for her decision, including the potential harm that could occur to the region’s $300 million a year agricultural industry and $2 billion a year oil and gas economy.
She stated that siting a nuclear storage facility in the area constituted “economic malpractice” and could discourage new businesses and industries in the area.
She also wrote that New Mexico could not be expected to maintain the emergency response teams or the road and railroad infrastructure needed to ensure safety for the project and transportation of materials. Additionally, she said the lack of a permanent nuclear waste storage facility in the United States could mean that the site might have to store waste longer than expected, which would entail repackaging of the waste and increased risks.
She noted in her letter that the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau and the Permian Basin Petroleum Association all sent letters to her expressing opposition to the ELEA plan.
The project has been controversial for many years, especially since Holtec’s application was accepted by the NRC for review in February 2018.
Environmentalists, farmers and ranchers, landowners and oil businesses have participated in protests, rallies and legal actions. Several local governments statewide, including the towns of Lake Arthur and Jal in southeast New Mexico, have issued ordinances opposing the site or the transport of nuclear materials through their communities. Chaves County opponents have included environmentalists, dairy operators and oil and gas businesses.
On the other hand, the boards of commissioners for Lea and Eddy counties, as well as elected officials in Carlsbad and Hobbs, have supported the project, which has been in the planning stages since 2011.
Supporters have many reasons for their views, including the 215 jobs expected during the construction phase, the millions that would be paid annually to the region by the federal government for roads and infrastructure, and the need for some type of facility in the nation to store the used waste from the nation’s nuclear plants.
Heaton said that most of the opposition is based on emotion, political views, irrational fears or hyperbole. He noted that the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board of the NRC rejected the 50 objections of six petitioners who wanted to intervene in the regulatory licensing process.
In response to specific points in Lujan Grisham’s letter, he said that the oil and gas industry has no reason to be concerned about a potential release of waste from the site.
“The oil and gas industry can actually drill and frack underneath the project,” he said. “There frankly can’t be a leak from the facility. But there are four layers of protection from any release and there is a salt layer that is underneath it that has been there for 250 million years and it is 1,500 feet thick, and there is no way anything can penetrate that salt.”
He said the risk of leakage from a transportation cask has been determined by the NRC to be a “billion to one.”
“That’s about as close to zero as you can get,” he said. “So it is hard for me to understand, if the ranching and farming community knows that, where they think a release is going to come from.”
On the lack of a permanent storage facility, he said the denial of congressional funding for the proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada or an alternative site is “out of his hands” and that it is illogical for politicians to oppose a permanent site and then say that an interim site has increased risks because of the lack of a permanent storage facility.
Heaton also said that New Mexico has been facing decreased population, jobs and economic growth for years and needs industrial development, including the nuclear industry.
“The reality is we are a very nuclear state,” he said. “We have two national laboratories that both have more than 12,000 employees working for them. … We have WIPP (Waste Isolation Project Plant) and we have Urenco (a uranium enrichment plant). We have one of the premier universities in New Mexico Tech that does energetics, and we have UNM (University of New Mexico), which has a nuclear engineering program, one of the few in the country. We should be a core state for all things nuclear.”
The NRC is conducting an environmental impact study regarding the application. That is expected to be ready for public comment by summer 2020. If the project passes all required regulatory reviews, a license could be issued sometime in 2021.
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.