NRC Schedules Review of New Mexico Interim Nuclear Waste Facility

Marking a fresh development for the nation’s futile efforts to resolve a long-standing impasse on nuclear waste, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said it could issue a license for Holtec International’s proposed consolidated interim storage (CIS) facility for used nuclear fuel in New Mexico by July 2020 or earlier.

Holtec, a Camden, New Jersey–based supplier of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) management equipment, received a letter from the NRC on February 28 affirming acceptance review of a March 2017-submitted license application for the proposed CIS facility, which it calls HI-STORE CIS, as well setting a timeline for review and estimated costs for the application review.

According to the NRC, the first round of requests for additional information could begin in March 2018 and end in August 2018. If necessary, a second round could be issued beginning in February 2019. While NRC staff expects to complete its safety, security, and environmental reviews by July 2020, Holtec noted that “the date will be sooner if Holtec’s responses to the regulatory queries are timely and of high quality.” The application and other documents related to the NRC’s review are available on the NRC website.

A National Graveyard for Nuclear Decay 

Holtec’s proposed HI-STORE CIS facility (Figure 1) in Lea County, New Mexico, comprises a subterranean used nuclear fuel storage system that uses HI-STORM UMAX storage technology, and according to the firm, it has the capacity to store 10,000 canisters. However, the company’s license application for HI-STORE CIS limits storage to 500 storage cavities, which could hold about 8,680 metric tons of fissile material, and seeks a 40-year license term.

Artist's rendering of the HI-STORE CIS Storage facility. Courtesy: Holtec

Artist’s rendering of the HI-STORE CIS Storage facility. Courtesy: Holtec

HI-STORM UMAX, the storage system technology that was licensed by the NRC in 2015 and has already been deployed at multiple nuclear plants nationwide, stores stainless steel canisters containing SNF or high-level waste in monitored grave-like cavities that passively eject the used fuel’s decay heat to the ambient air above, but contains its radiation within the subgrade in which the canisters are stored. “The radiation released to the environment from the HI-STORM CIS facility storing vast quantities of used fuel is negligibly small,” Holtec said.

The company also noted that the facility is designed to “provide a clear, unobstructed view of the entire [CIS facility] from any location.” It can also accommodate different storage canisters, whether vertically and horizontally stored.

Holtec noted that the HI-STORM UMAX system (Figure 2) is a temporary measure, and it enables easy retrieving of the stainless-steel canisters. But their removal will depend on construction and completion of a permanent repository for used nuclear fuel—and none currently exists owing to a government deadlock on a nuclear waste management strategy formally established 35 years ago. (For an in-depth look at the current state of nuclear waste management, see “A Break in the Nuclear Waste Impasse?” in POWER’s March 2018 issue).

Holtec’s HI-STORM UMAX system loaded at a U.S. nuclear power plant. Courtesy: Holtec

Holtec’s HI-STORM UMAX system loaded at a U.S. nuclear power plant. Courtesy: Holtec

Reviving Nuclear Waste Efforts

As POWER reported, nearly a third of the nation’s SNF is in dry storage in about 2,080 cask or canister systems at 75 reactor sites scattered across 33 states. But U.S. SNF pools have reached capacity limits, forcing nuclear generators to load about 160 new dry storage canisters each year. Nuclear generators currently recover costs for SNF storage and management by suing the Department of Energy (DOE), which, under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, was contractually obligated to dispose of SNF by January 1998. The DOE, however, cannot fulfill its obligation because no permanent repository exists—or is even in sight.

Beyond Yucca Mountain—the long-stonewalled Nevada repository identified by amendments to the NWPA in 1987—the law allows for only two other nuclear waste options: to build one or more interim storage facilities to temporarily consolidate SNF across the nation until a permanent repository is completed; or use federally monitored retrievable storage (MRS) facilities, in which the DOE could store nuclear waste from commercial nuclear plants pending permanent disposal or reprocessing. While no MRS facilities have been proposed to date, only two private companies have filed NRC applications for an interim SNF facility.

A year before Holtec filed its application with the NRC for the HI-STORM CIS in March 2017, Waste Control Specialists (WCS) filed an application for an interim facility near Andrews, Texas. However, the company has since asked the NRC to suspend consideration of the application, saying estimated licensing costs were “significantly higher than we originally estimated.”

According to Holtec, the NRC’s projected costs of regulatory review for the facility’s license application hover at about $7.5 million. “HI-STORE CIS is being licensed by Holtec’s own funds with the enthusiastic support of nuclear-savvy communities in southeastern New Mexico incorporated as the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA), LLC,” the company noted.

Meanwhile, the license application at the NRC may not be Holtec’s last. The company said that after the initial application is approved, it plans to make supplemental submittals to incorporate “the many canister types being used in the industry.” It added: “Our goal is to provide HI-STORE CIS as a certified storage destination for the spent nuclear fuel from every nuclear plant site in the United States.”

The NRC is currently also considering another licensing submittal for a technology designed to reclaim thermal energy from the the HI-STORE CIS facility—as much as 200 MWt when the facility is at full capacity—for beneficial use. In New Mexico, that heat could be used to purify process water containing organics and minerals from New Mexico’s oil and gas fields to produce clean potable water, Holtec said, noting that it is also working on a patented technology to carry out industrial-scale water purification without violating federal regulations. “New Mexico, short of clean drinking water, has copious quantities of industrial non-potable water which can be distilled using the hot air emanating from the storage cavities,” it said.

—Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)