Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2015
By Arianne Peterson
In an April 10 letter, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez urged the US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to move forward with plans to establish a “consolidated interim storage facility in southeastern New Mexico.” The proposed site would hold the nuclear power industry’s ever-growing legacy of reactor fuel rods and other high-level radioactive waste, which the government projects will reach 141,000 metric tons based on current reactor licenses. Since the rise of nuclear energy in the 1970s, the US government has promised to find a permanent, safe solution for disposing of its deadly by-products—but so far, the Energy Department has failed to find a viable option, and decades’ worth of discarded fuel rods have remained at reactor sites throughout the country.
New Mexico’s interim storage proposal would require transporting this dangerous reactor waste from more than 60 sites dispersed across the country to the state’s southeastern corner. The waste would remain at the site for 100 years, or ostensibly until a more permanent solution is found. The global energy company Holtec International and a private regional company called the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance have signed a Memorandum of Agreement to partner in the venture. The site they have identified is near Carlsbad, just 12 miles from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) radioactive waste repository. WIPP has been closed since February 2014 when an underground barrel explosion there contaminated 22 workers and caused an above-ground release of radioactive particles.
Holtec would be responsible for designing, licensing, building, and operating the new facility using a scaled-up version of its HI-STORM UMAX (for Holtec International Storage Module Underground Maximum Capacity) underground dry-cask storage design. This design has not yet been successfully implemented anywhere in the world; Holtec will hold an “inaugural loading campaign” later this summer at the Callaway nuclear power facility in Missouri, where its first HI-STORM UMAX casks will be filled with radioactive waste. Holtec claims “there is no technical limit on the [planned New Mexico] facility’s storage capacity,” implying that the dump would accommodate all current reactor waste—and encourage the industry to keep producing more.
More plutonium headed to WIPP?
While Governor Martinez invites waste from the rest of the country’s nuclear power facilities for storage at Holtec’s proposed site (New Mexico doesn’t actually have any commercial reactors of its own), the federal government is considering the contaminated, shuttered WIPP facility just down the road as a final resting place for 34 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. On May 9, the Energy Department released a report identifying WIPP as a lower-cost alternative to the proposed mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear program, which was supposed to convert weapons plutonium into commercial reactor fuel. Taxpayers have already spent $4.4 billion on construction of the MOX facility at Savannah River in South Carolina; a division of the French nuclear giant Areva has benefitted from the design contract. Watchdog groups have long derided the project— which is over-budget and behind schedule, suffering from poor management and a lack of oversight.
The May Energy Department report projected the final cost of the MOX program to be at least $47.5 billion, a price government officials admit the country cannot afford. Sending the plutonium to WIPP would be far less expensive—and so far, it’s the only other option they’ve studied. Of course, the WIPP plan would first require that the shuttered site be reopened; it would also necessitate an amendment to the Land Withdrawal Act, which governs WIPP’s operations, to allow for more plutonium disposal. An Energy Department report on further plutonium disposal options is due out in September.
Meanwhile, WIPP remains closed, with clean-up expected to require several years and $550 million. In April, the ad hoc Accident Investigation Board appointed by the Energy Department issued its final report on the barrel explosion, which it termed “preventable.” The report blames the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), where contractors packed the volatile drum, and the Energy Department itself for mismanagement and negligence, including failure to listen to worker concerns—such as reports of foam and neon smoke emanating from drums. The Board’s investigation confirmed that a highly combustible combination of nitrate salts and organic cat litter in the improperly packed, improperly labeled barrel was the direct cause of the explosion.
State settles with Energy Department over violations
Because of the WIPP disaster, the Energy Department reduced the bonuses (monetary incentives above and beyond operating costs) for its contracted operators at WIPP and LANL in 2014. The New Mexico Environment Department threatened to levy more than $150 million in fines against the federal government for permit violations and other failures that caused the contamination, but the state recently accepted a settlement of just $73 million in federal dollars earmarked for highway improvements and other infrastructure projects around the WIPP and LANL.
Greg Mello of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group expressed concern that the settlement does not actually address the problems that led to the leak. “I’m a little flabbergasted … that the state would negotiate what the money is used for. … What does that have to do with [the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] violations? It seems like an entirely different sphere.” Mello argues that the projects, which are directly related to maintenance and operations of the federal Energy Department facilities, should be part of a regular budget rather than the result of a settlement for environmental permit violations. New Mexico’s Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn reported that lobby groups for local contractors, who will benefit from the projects, “heavily influenced the settlement.”
New Mexico’s radioactive burden
Radioactive contamination is not a new problem for New Mexico. In addition to the Los Alamos facility, the state is also home to the Sandia National Laboratories; both labs were established in the 1940s to develop the first atomic bombs and are still active in nuclear weapons research. The White Sands Missile Range, including the site of the first nuclear bomb test, occupies over 3,000 square miles in the southern part of the state. Uranium mining has left a terrible radioactive legacy on the western New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation, with 450 abandoned mines and eight former mills—three of which are designated Superfund sites—contaminating countless acres and tens of millions of gallons of groundwater.
On the east side of the state, Urenco USA opened a uranium enrichment facility in 2010. Just yards away from the Urenco facility, on the Texas side of the border, Waste Control Specialists (WCS) operates the nation’s only private low-level radioactive waste dump. In a February bid that could put it in competition with Holtec and WIPP, WCS announced plans to apply for a permit to store high-level waste, including reactor fuel rods and plutonium-contaminated military waste. No matter which company or government contractor ends up profiting from the nation’s nuclear legacy, odds seem good that New Mexico will bear the brunt of the country’s nuclear waste burden.
—Aiken Standard, May 20; Santa Fe New Mexican, May 1; Holtec Highlights, Apr. 30 & May 4; Albuquerque Journal, Apr. 17; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jan. 18, 2015; Truthout, Feb. 20, 2014