Road to Central Waste Facility Still Bumpy
Nukewatch Quarterly Spring 2022
By Adrian Monty
After rubber stamping the Interim Storage Partners (ISP) Consolidated Interim Storage facility for high-level radioactive waste in Texas last September, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is expected to do the same for a proposed New Mexico facility by July. Holtec International, in conjunction with the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, has proposed building a Consolidated Interim Storage (CIS) facility in New Mexico. However, it cannot accept any high-level radioactive waste or operate in any capacity until court cases are settled and until the Southwest consents to being the country’s nuclear dumping ground.
This brings into the spotlight the resuscitation of the previously-abandoned Department of Energy’s “consent-based siting process.” To restart the process, the DOE issued a Request for Information, and 140 organizations signed onto a letter opposing the CIS proposals in New Mexico and Texas. If true consent-based siting is enforced, any state that would host the nuclear waste site must approve the project before it can operate.
The dump proposals are being opposed with both protest and litigation. Major lawsuits have been filed in three U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, the Washington, DC Circuit, the 5th Circuit in New Orleans, and the 10th in Denver. The groups Beyond Nuclear, Don’t Waste Michigan, and Sierra Club, have each filed appeals against both CIS facilities. So too have the States of Texas and New Mexico, the Fasken Land and Mineral, Company Ltd., and the Permian Basin Land and Royalty Owners Association.
On Sept. 10, 2021, the Texas legislature overwhelmingly adopted a prohibition against storage or disposal of high-level waste in the state. Two bills in New Mexico’s legislature against issuing permits to the waste facility were tabled in February in spite of tremendous popularity.
Supporters of a license denial bill, like state Senator Jeff Steinborn, said the risk of radiation exposure to New Mexicans is too great. The bill’s opponents, including Carlsbad, New Mexico mayor Dale Janway cite potential economic advantages of the facility, but ignore its inherent dangers. Opposition to the bill is led by industry advertisements that call nuclear power a low-carbon climate change solution.
At the federal level, a bipartisan bill introduced March 2nd in the Senate and the House would prevent private companies building a CIS from receiving certain federal payments — which could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars — until a permanent deep, geologic dumpsite is approved. Because no permanent waste site has been proposed, much less consented to, this bill would halt the CIS proposals for now.
Holtec’s application to the NRC proposes a site able to store 173,600 metric tons of highly radioactive waste from U.S. nuclear power reactors. Today there are about 86,000 tons stored at the nation’s reactors.
As advertised, CIS plans are said to be “temporary” facilities, built in the Southwest for commercial radioactive waste fuel in canisters to be transported there from 75 reactor sites across the country, most of which are east of the Mississippi.
The risk of transporting dangerous, high-level radioactive waste through nearly every mainland U.S. state is unprecedented. Not only would the waste be a danger to the truck, train and barge haulers, but also to people in cities, villages, and farms along every road, rail, and waterway it passes. Recently, the NRC began discussing preparedness for the mass transport of this waste. (See U.S. Quietly Discloses Plans for Mass, Cross-Country Shipments of High-Level Radioactive Waste.)
The “interim” component of this proposal is an additional danger. If this is approved as such, the high-level radioactive waste could potentially be transported a second time once a permanent facility is approved and operational. On the other hand, the interim storage facility could turn permanent if no permanent site becomes available.
Nuclear fuel waste remains dangerously radioactive for millions of years. How can anyone ensure a facility to hold something so dangerous for such an ineffable amount of time?
In all actuality, nowhere is a good place to store all of this waste. The production of radioactive waste through use of nuclear energy must be stopped and in most cases, until there is a better answer, the safest bet is in hardened on-site storage.
— Adrian Monty works with the Oregon State University Downwinder Project. She is an environmental journalist with a focus on atomic issues.