New Mexico and Texas Locations Interested in Receiving Spent Nuclear Fuel

Progress has been slow on finding a permanent disposal solution for spent nuclear fuel in the U.S., but an interim solution seems more palatable to developers in a couple of southwestern states.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz on April 11, informing him of her support for a consolidated interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel to be located in the southeastern part of her state.

The proposed site—about halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs—is being promoted by the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA), a group whose members include government officials from the City of Carlsbad, City of Hobbs, Eddy County, and Lea County. The area suggested has a “strong pre-existing scientific and nuclear operations workforce,” according to the governor. The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is located near Carlsbad. Before the February 2014 radiation leak that resulted in a suspension of operations at the underground site, WIPP was the only repository for nuclear waste generated by the nation’s nuclear defense program.

The letter follows Moniz’s comments last month before members of the Bipartisan Policy Center that the DOE would initiate a “consent-based siting process” for an interim nuclear waste storage facility. Gov. Martinez suggested in her letter that southeastern New Mexico fits the bill, because “there is broad support in the region for such an endeavor.”

But not everyone is happy about the prospect of storing nuclear waste in New Mexico. Don Hancock, Nuclear Waste Program director for the Southwest Research and Information Center—a nonprofit environmental organization based in Albuquerque—told POWER that a consolidated interim storage facility is not needed in New Mexico, or anywhere else for that matter.

“Any such site would pose dangers to millions of people along transportation routes,” Hancock said. “Any such site would have the largest concentration of radioactivity of any place in the U.S., so that creates major dangers from accidents or other incidents.”

Gov. Martinez sees the project as an opportunity to broaden the region’s economic base and believes the remote area is “well-suited for an interim storage site.” It’s not the only remote area that is interested in developing a nuclear fuel disposal site, however.

In February, Valhi Inc., a subsidiary of Waste Control Specialists LLC (WCS), announced that it had sent the Nuclear Regulatory Commission notification that it intends to apply for a license to store used nuclear fuel at its facility in Andrews County, Texas. WCS already operates two separately licensed low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) disposal facilities at the Andrews site.

Just as promoters of the New Mexico site assert, WCS claims that its site’s arid and isolated location offers an ideal setting for storage and disposal of nuclear waste. WCS says the western Andrews County facility is the only commercial facility in the U.S. licensed to dispose of Class A, B, C, and Mixed LLRW. It is home to the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact facility for commercial LLRW and the Federal Waste Facility for waste from the DOE.

According to William J. Lindquist, CEO of WCS, an interim storage facility would offer a viable solution for thousands of tons of used fuel currently being stored at 72 locations in 33 states.

“Six of the 72 locations are decommissioned nuclear power plants that have been totally remediated and where the property is ready for return to the community in which they are located, other than for removal of the used nuclear fuel stored on-site,” Lindquist said.

However, Hancock sees approval of an interim site as a stumbling block to a more permanent solution. “Any such site would make it even more unlikely that there would be geologic repositories, as many people would think that the waste problem is ‘solved,’” he said.

While Hancock thinks spent fuel should remain at or near the power plants where it was generated, he believes additional safety measures should be taken. A couple of the actions he suggested include reducing the amount of spent fuel contained in pools and increasing physical barriers around pools and dry cask storage areas to reduce the risk of accidents and other incidents. (For more on current dry cask storage options, see “Dry Cask Storage Booming for Spent Nuclear Fuel.”)

“Spent fuel will continue to be generated at operating power plants, whether or not there is one or more consolidated storage sites. So new site(s) only increase the number of places where accidents could occur, while also increasing overall risks and costs (especially related to transportation),” Hancock said.

The process of licensing and constructing an interim facility is expected to take years. WCS appears to be the furthest along, and it doesn’t expect to submit the final license application before April 2016. Even if all goes according to plan, construction would not be complete until December 2020.

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)