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.

‘Per­ma­nent dis­posal

doesn’t ex­ist’

“(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 de­ci­sion’

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.”

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