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Plan to store nuke fuel in New Mexico gets 1st regulatory OK

March 12, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this April 29, 2015, file photo, an illustration depicts a planned interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in southeastern New Mexico as officials announce plans to pursue the project during a news conference at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, N.M. Federal regulators are recommending licensing a proposed multibillion-dollar complex in southern New Mexico that would temporarily store spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors around the United States. But the preliminary recommendation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is making waves with critics who say the agency did not look closely enough at potential conflicts with locating the facility in the heart of one of the nation's busiest oil and gas basins. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)
FILE - In this April 29, 2015, file photo, an illustration depicts a planned interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in southeastern New Mexico as officials announce plans to pursue the project during a news conference at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, N.M. Federal regulators are recommending licensing a proposed multibillion-dollar complex in southern New Mexico that would temporarily store spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors around the United States. But the preliminary recommendation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is making waves with critics who say the agency did not look closely enough at potential conflicts with locating the facility in the heart of one of the nation's busiest oil and gas basins. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Federal regulators are recommending licensing a proposed multibillion-dollar complex in southern New Mexico that would temporarily store spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors around the United States.

But the recommendation issued this week by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is making waves with critics who say the agency did not look closely enough at potential conflicts with locating the facility in the heart of the Permian Basin, one of the world’s most prolific energy production regions.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other top elected officials are among those who have long had concerns about the potential environmental effects and the prospects of the state becoming a permanent dumping ground for spent nuclear fuel because the federal government lacks a permanent plan for what to do with the waste piling up at power plants around the country.

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The commission noted in its draft environmental review that the facility would not affect the environment or interfere with the oil industry because drilling taps into layers that are far deeper than where the storage site would be located.

New Jersey-based Holtec International is seeking a 40-year license to build what it has described as a state-of-the-art complex near Carlsbad. The first phase calls for storing up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, which would be packed into 500 canisters. Future expansion could make room for as many as 10,000 canisters of spent nuclear fuel.

The site in southeastern New Mexico is remote and geologically stable, the company has said. Holtec executives also have said the four-layer casks that would hold the spent fuel would be made of thick steel and lead and transported on a designated train with guards.

The commission is accepting public comments on the draft environmental review. While the state submitted extensive comments in December, officials said Thursday are reviewing the latest iteration and it’s possible New Mexico will submit additional comments.

“The administration of Gov. Lujan Grisham has been very clear in its position on Holtec’s proposed interim storage facility. The submittal of the draft EIS doesn’t change that, nor does the NRC’s recommendation to issue a license to Holtec,” said Maddy Hayden, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Environment Department.

Don Hancock with the watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center said the review falls short because Holtec could end up operating the storage facility for decades beyond the initial term of the license.

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“NRC isn’t actually looking at the full impacts,” he said.

John Heaton, chairman of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, described the NRC as strong regulator and said the preliminary recommendation marked a major step in the licensing process. He said the report reaffirms the project will have a positive impact on the region’s economy, bringing several hundred jobs.

Holtec said the U.S. currently has more than 80,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel in storage at dozens of sites around the country and the inventory is growing at a rate of about 2,000 metric tons per year.

The NRC staff’s preliminary recommendation states there are no environmental impacts that would preclude the commission from issuing a license for environmental reasons. That recommendation was based on a review of Holtec’s application and consultation with local, state, tribal and federal officials.

The commission is expected to host a series of public meetings in the coming weeks. It could be next year before a final decision is made.

Another company also is seeking a license for a similar facility that would be located across the state line in West Texas.