New Mexico pushes for high-level nuclear waste
At first glance, the barren stretch of desert between Carlsbad and Hobbs in Southeast New Mexico seems unfit for any kind of industry. But this rugged, nondescript patch of land is poised to be the focus of the next national conversation about how to dispose of the country’s most dangerous nuclear waste.
The state took a crucial step this month toward accepting such waste, which other Western states have shunned, when New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez quietly signaled to the Obama administration that her administration would welcome it.
In an April 10 letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, which was obtained by The New Mexican, Martinez urged the administration to look to southeastern New Mexico to store the spent, highly radioactive fuel rods left over from electricity production at nuclear power plants. The desolate 1,000-acre parcel is not far from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository, which accepts only lower level radioactive waste.
“Time and time again, the citizens of southeastern New Mexico have impressed me with their hard work ethic and willingness to tackle national problems that many others consider to be unsolvable,” Martinez wrote. “In one of the most remote areas of the state, they have had the ingenuity and fortitude to carve out a niche in the nuclear industry to broaden their economic base. They understand the benefits not only to their local economy, but also to our country.”
The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a consortium of city and county governments, has advocated for such a site for years. Carlsbad alone has spent more than a quarter-million U.S. dollars lobbying for the project.
In the badlands of southeastern New Mexico, civic leaders see waste as hope. And while the area’s aspirations to bring a storage site for spent fuel are only now ready to step into a national spotlight, backers of the plan have waged a largely silent, high-dollar campaign to influence decisionmakers at the state and federal levels to support the idea.
“You’ve got to recognize, we’re not a Santa Fe, and we’re not an Albuquerque that has a self-sus- taining economy. We’re out here in the hinterlands, and we need to find our own niches,” John Heaton, a former New Mexico lawmaker and current chairman of the EddyLea Energy Alliance, said. “The reality is we have to figure out how to build our own economy down here, how to grow our own jobs and so that’s the path we’ve taken. We are fiercely independent down here.”
The Obama administration recently announced that it would give greater weight to regional acceptance when selecting highlevel waste disposal sites. While Utah and Nevada have expressed distaste for such a site, Martinez’s letter and the approval of civic leaders in Eddy and Lea counties are critical steps in checking that box.
But one critic of the plan says bringing highly radioactive waste to New Mexico from nuclear power plants concentrated on the East Coast is a matter of statewide concern that shouldn’t be decided by a fraction of the state’s residents.
“(Martinez) is not the governor of southeastern New Mexico, she’s the governor of the whole state of New Mexico, but she wants to be a booster for these southeastern New Mexico folks,” said Don Hancock, a waste expert with the Albuquerque- based watchdog Southwest Information and Research Center. “She certainly hasn’t asked the people of the state what they think about it.”
A spokesman for Martinez, in a written statement, called the letter to Moniz a preliminary endorsement to consider an interim storage site in New Mexico and said the governor is committed to a process that will “ensure all voices are heard before any interim storage site is selected.”
Hancock rattled off a long list of reasons he thinks the plan is a bad idea. Most nuclear power plants are thousands of miles away, meaning the nation’s most volatile waste would need to travel across the country to come here, posing threats along the way. Comparable plans have been batted down not only in other states, but in New Mexico. Hancock said it’s disingenuous to characterize the proposed storage site in New Mexico as an interim way station for spent fuel on its way to a permanent resting place. With the demise of plans to construct a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the U.S. is without a final destination for spent fuel, so Hancock worries that any interim storage options would in fact become the final stop.
“This is the hottest, most radioactive material in the United States,” Hancock said. “Permanent disposal doesn’t exist. So the socalled plan for ‘interim’ storage is a charade. It’s not truthful. Nobody can seriously believe that. There is no ability to send it someplace else, because there is no someplace else.”
He favors leaving spent fuel at the nuclear power plants that generated them.
Heaton says the site a mile north of the U.S. 62/180 road halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs, which is owned by those cities and the counties of Eddy and Lea, is ideal for an interim spent-fuel repository.
“The site is very dry, 35 miles from population, seismically stable, close to rail; water and electricity are on the site; there is no commercial fly-over traffic; which makes it an excellent site,” Heaton said. He also touted the Carlsbad area’s workforce familiar with nuclear-waste handling.
In her letter to Moniz, Martinez made all the same points.
“She basically understood the need for the letter and what it meant in terms of being able to go forward or not go forward,” Heaton said. “We’re grateful as heck for it.”
The alliance has studied closely the dry-cask form of packaging that encases spent fuel during transportation and storage, and Heaton said promoters of the project in southeastern New Mexico are confident that it’s safe.
‘We should be the ones making
The Eddy- Lea Energy Alliance’s chief competition to become the dump site sits a short, dusty drive through the desert, just across the state line in Andrews, Texas, where Waste Control Specialists is mounting a campaign of its own to develop a spent- fuel storage site. And AREVA, the federal contractor owned by the French government that’s part of the consortium that operates WIPP, joined forces in February with Waste Control Specialists in its bid to land the mission.
For about two years, AREVA had been the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance’s partner in pursuing a dump for southeastern New Mexico until the end of 2013. An AREVA spokesman said the split was by mutual agreement.
“They were doing what they could do to help, we were doing what we could to help, and when two helps don’t work, you have to move on,” Heaton said.
Heaton said WIPP’s travails, and the course of the spent-fuel storage facility southeastern New Mexico hopes to add are its cross to bear, even if its advocates need to convince the rest of the state to accept the idea during a licensing process that could take years.
“You have to think about who has the risk. You don’t have any risk from what’s going on at WIPP in Santa Fe. There is no event or risk that’s going to affect Albuquerque,” Heaton said. “The folks that are going to be affected are down here, and we should be the ones making the decision. Period. End of story.”