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New Mexico counties move toward establishing spent nuclear fuel storage site


Holtec International has teamed up with two New Mexico counties to establish an interim nuclear waste storage facility in the southeastern part of the state.

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Their effort has the support of New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, who informed Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz earlier in April that the counties have already selected a site that has been "vetted extensively."

The joint venture was announced during a news conference Wednesday in Albuquerque.

Holtec, which supplies equipment and systems to the nuclear power industry and other energy sectors, as well as nuclear waste management technologies, announced a memorandum of agreement with the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance.

The alliance is a limited liability entity made up of Eddy and Lea counties and the towns of Carlsbad and Hobbs in those counties, respectively.

The US Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a defense transuranic waste repository, is near Carlsbad.

Urenco USA, a Louisiana Energy Services uranium enrichment facility, is located near Hobbs.

The two counties, through the alliance, jointly own 1,000 acres in southeastern New Mexico where they would like to site an interim storage facility.

"There is a strong pre-existing scientific and nuclear operations workforce in the area, and the dry, remote region is well-suited for an interim storage site," Martinez said in an April 10 letter to Moniz.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, whose Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Alex Flint spoke at the news conference, said the Holtec-ELEA agreement would develop an interim site "to store all of the used nuclear fuel produced in the United States and all canisters [of spent fuel] currently licensed in dry storage in the country."

The storage facility developed under the agreement will be modeled on Holtec's Hi-Storm Umax storage system, which will store the spent fuel in steel and concrete containers below ground.

Martinez said in her letter that there "is a significant and growing national need for such an interim storage facility" in the US.

"Millions of taxpayer dollars are currently being spent on monitoring and oversight of spent fuel each year, and millions more are being spent on settlement payments related to waste disposition," she said.

"These communities in New Mexico support safely moving spent fuel to a consolidated interim storage site using proven technology which is the most sensible approach to this problem until a permanent and long-term solution is available," Martinez wrote. "Dry cask storage is a proven, passive and safe system that has been used since 1984 with no adverse incidents."

There now are more than 70,000 mt of utility spent fuel stored in the US, and that inventory grows at a rate of roughly 2,000 mt/year. Much of the spent fuel at US power reactors has been moved from spent fuel storage pools into dry storage systems at the plant sites.

The US has been grappling with what to do with its growing inventory of utility spent fuel since DOE dismantled the Yucca Mountain repository project in Nevada in 2010, two years after submitting a repository license application to the agency.

DOE attributed that action in part to the state of Nevada's unyielding opposition to the proposed disposal facility, which if licensed and constructed, would be roughly 95 miles outside of Las Vegas.

DOE's action left the US without a path forward for that waste.

By the time DOE dismantled the Yucca Mountain project, it was already 12 years late in meeting a contractual obligation with utilities with nuclear plants. Under that deal, it was to have begun disposing of their spent fuel by January 31, 1998.

No spent fuel has been disposed of, and nuclear operating companies have filed damage claims against the federal government seeking to recover billions of dollars in costs incurred as a result of their extended onsite storage of the used fuel.

"The Department of Energy estimates the total liability for the federal government for this failure to manage used nuclear fuel at $27.1 billion, including $4.5 billion already paid out of the US Treasury's Judgment Fund," according to NEI. "This estimate assumes that the DOE begins accepting used nuclear fuel in 2021."

DOE's ability to do that has been tied to its use of a yet-to-be-developed, consent-based siting process that could require it have consent on local, state, and tribal levels before siting a nuclear waste facility.

Martinez's press secretary Michael Lonergan said in a Tuesday email that the governor wrote the letter to Moniz shortly after the energy secretary announced March 25 that DOE plans to initiate work before the end of the year on the development of a consent-based siting process.

DOE will kick off that work with "calls for discussion" and town-hall type meetings, Moniz said in March.

Separately, the House of Representatives energy and water funding bill for fiscal 2016, which is expected to move to the House floor for a vote Thursday, would bar DOE from using spending any Nuclear Waste Fund money for work not related to a Yucca Mountain repository, including work on a consent-based siting process.

The waste fund, a federal trust fund, was established by Congress to fund the disposal of utility spent fuel using a special fee collected from nuclear utility customers.

The White House Office of Management and Budget said Tuesday that President Barack Obama strongly opposes the bill and if presented with it, his senior advisers would recommend he veto it.

Among the president's objections are the bill's funding for a Yucca Mountain repository and its ban on DOE work on alternatives to that project, including its prohibition on the development of a consent-based siting process and interim storage of utility spent fuel.

The Senate version of the appropriations bill, which has not yet been issued, is expected to embrace interim storage and consent-based siting.

Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over DOE spending, has co-sponsored a bipartisan nuclear waste bill in the chamber that calls for the use of a consent-based approach to site one or more interim storage facilities as well as repositories.

--Elaine Hiruo,
--Edited by Keiron Greenhalgh,