Source: Holtec International
It promises to be New Mexico’s Eco-Hysteria Event of the Year. And it takes place tonight, in Albuquerque.
At 6:00, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will host a public meeting “to seek public comment on the scope of the agency’s environmental review of Holtec International’s application to build a spent nuclear fuel storage facility in the southeastern part of the state.” The event — perhaps featuring guitars, drum circles, and face paint? — will be held at the Crown Plaza Hotel on University Boulevard.
Holtec International seeks to build a facility in Lea County, about “32 miles east of Carlsbad and 34 miles west of Hobbs.” The company’s goal is to make a profit by offering at least a partial solution to a $15 billion mess created by federal politics and incompetence.
Put simply, the nation’s inventory of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) is piling up, and there’s no place for it to go.
The problem? Washington. In 1982, contrary to the deregulatory zeitgeist of the time, the feds nationalized disposal of SNF — promising to take it off utilities’ hands and bury it in a permanent geological repository. Trouble is, the feds weren’t up to the job. Nearly four decades later, $15 billion has been spent on site characterization at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, yet a repository remains as far away as ever.
There’s plenty of blame to go around — bureaucratic turf battles, revenue/funding squabbles on Capitol Hill, militant resistance from state and federal pols in Nevada, the Obama administration — but Yucca hasn’t been built, and there’s no reason to think it ever will. The situation is so bad, taxpayers have forked over billions of dollars to compensate utilities for storing SNF that was supposed to be the federal government’s obligation as of January 31, 1998.
One small step forward toward an ultimate resolution of the debacle is to build consolidated interim storage facilities, which assemble SNF at centralized locations. They promise to cut costs, via economies of scale, without posing health or safety risks. (The NRC will tightly regulate the construction and operation of the facilities, and continue to oversee the truck and rail transport of SNF.)
Holtec’s plan is to store up to 10,000 tonnes of spent fuel in canisters “in a vertical configuration inside a subterranean cylindrical cavity entirely below the top-of-grade” of its facility. It’s an impressively robust way to store SNF, and the operation’s small footprint will be sited in a region which is brutally dry, incredibly isolated, and seismically stable. It would be difficult to find a locale better suited to the task. In addition, the company predicts its investment would annually produce “a total increase in income from direct jobs of nearly $3.9 million and approximately $411,000 in personal income tax and New Mexico Gross Receipts Tax.”
In short, Holtec’s plan makes a lot of sense. So it’s hardly surprising that New Mexico’s eco-chondriacs are churning up the agitprop, hoping to influence the NRC’s licensing process. Reading their hysterical rants, even a level-headed observer would become convinced that Homer Simpson himself will be driving trucks of green, gooey, glowing waste to New Mexico, leaking poision all the way, intent on dumping it on the fragile and pristine environmental paradise that is western Lea County.
Back here on Planet Earth, SNF is pretty boring, and incredibly safe. It’s merely a “structured group of fuel rods (long, slender, metal tubes containing pellets of fissionable material),” and its movement on America’s roads and rails has an essentially unblemished safety record. A 2007 analysis by The National Academy of Sciences found “no fundamental technical barriers to the safe transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste in the United States. When conducted in strict adherence to existing regulations, such transport is a low radiological risk activity with manageable safety, health, and environmental consequences.”
Spent-fuel assemblies [are] hauled from nuclear plants by rail or truck … using vehicles and containers that meet NRC and Department of Transportation regulations. The shell of a nuclear waste cask is fifteen times thicker than that of a gasoline tank truck; it must have three inches of stainless steel as well as thick radiation shields. Nothing can escape the double-shelled, impact-resistant steel casks, even in the worst collision. Furthermore, the transportation specialist hired by the State of Nevada to highlight problems acknowledges that these casks “are among the best containers that humans know how to make to contain hazardous materials.”
Once in New Mexico, there’s no reason to think Holtec’s facility will pose any environmental risks. Once again, the location is darn-near perfect, given its remoteness and aridness and lack of “threatened” wildlife. Shielded from radioactivity by Holtec’s “HI-STORM UMAX Storage System technology” (licensed by the NRC, of course), the people of southeast New Mexico should lose no sleep about SNF stored in their community.
Fortunately, the regulatory-approval process is not a democracy. The NRC won’t be tabulating the number of Holtec opponents and supporters. If the company meets all requirements — and in reviewing its documents, the Rio Grande Foundation hasn’t been able to find any showstoppers — a license will be granted. That’s good news for economic development in the Land of Enchantment, and it’s great news for the larger cause of shifting SNF management and disposal away from failed federal technocracy and toward a market-oriented strategy.
Errors of Enchantment will be at the hearing tonight, and we’ll have an after-action report tomorrow. This one will be fun.