Holtec CISF

A computer rendering of the proposed CISF facility in southeast New Mexico. 

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on March 10 recommended issuing a license authorizing the construction and operation of a proposed nuclear waste storage facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico.

In its nearly 500-page draft environmental impact statement, the federal regulator recommended approving New Jersey-based Holtec International's Phase 1 plan to store 500 canisters of spent nuclear fuel underground. Holtec plans on requesting amendments to the license to expand the proposed site to hold up to 10,000 canisters, according to the NRC's recommendation [NUREG-2237].

Holtec's 288-acre HI-STORE Consolidated Interim Storage Facility would be located on approximately 1,000 acres between the towns of Carlsbad and Hobbs, New Mexico. The draft report also considered Holtec's proposed five-mile rail spur on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land that would be used to transport canisters of spent nuclear fuel from the main rail line.

The spent nuclear fuel waste at the proposed site would then be stored underground in a dry-cask system using stainless steel canisters designed without bolted joints. Cylindrical, steel-lined concrete slots would house the canisters, providing extra radiation shielding.

In its report, the NRC found that impacts to local air quality, groundwater and ecology would be "small," the commission's lowest impact rating. The risk is similarly low for radiological health impacts to workers and the public, the report says, with all potential dose exposures falling under regulatory limits. According to the NRC, the health risks to workers would be negligible even under accident conditions.

Holtec's request specifies a 40-year licensing term to store 8,680 metric tons of spent fuel in 500 canisters at an estimated cost of $230 million. A full buildout of the facility, which would occur over a 20-year period, would extend its capacity to 10,000 canisters at a cost of $2.4 billion. Holtec's expansion was not included in the application currently pending, but NRC staff considered the subsequent buildouts in its impact determinations, the report says. David McIntyre, public affairs officer at the NRC, told California Energy Markets via email that "any extensions of the license beyond 40 years would require NRC safety and environmental reviews as well."

Although the proposed site is in the heart of the Permian Basin, which has become one of the top oil- and gas-producing regions in the country, the report says that the proposed storage facility would not be disturbed by nearby drilling activity because such drilling occurs at a depth far greater than the projected depth at which the spent-fuel casks will be held. McIntyre said the NRC's safety rules "require spent fuel storage facilities to be protected from potential hazards of activities at nearby industrial sites, including oil and gas extraction," and that these findings are forthcoming in a safety evaluation report to be published in March 2021. The six operating solar power facilities that fall within the impact study area are also not expected to be disturbed.

The facility would receive spent nuclear fuel from both operating and decommissioned reactor facilities around the country until the U.S. Department of Energy creates a permanent repository. Yucca Mountain, Nevada, a site approved by Congress as a permanent repository in 2002, hit the latest of several roadblocks on Feb. 10, when it was not included in the Trump administration's 2021 budget proposal (see CEM No. 1576).

Both the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, used to store transuranic radioactive waste and transuranic mixed waste, and the National Enrichment Facility, a uranium enrichment site, are located within 40 miles of the proposed HI-STORE CISF site. "The NRC's draft EIS validates our technical position that our proposed subterranean fuel storage facility entails no adverse consequences to the environment or to other enterprises such as oil and gas, ranching and farming operating in the area," Holtec President and CEO Kris Singh said in a news release.

The NRC's recommendation comes after the New Mexico House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee issued a do-pass recommendation for House Memorial 21, which formalizes the Legislature's opposition to the transportation and storage of spent nuclear fuel in the state (see CEM No. 1577).

The All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents 20 sovereign Pueblo nations of Texas and New Mexico, in 2019 also adopted a resolution opposing Holtec's licensing application [APCG 2019-14]. "Pueblos have not been afforded the opportunity to engage in meaningful tribal consultation with the U.S. DOT and NRC as lead agencies regarding transportation routes of high level radioactive spent nuclear fuel," it reads.

Others contend the facility is needed to smooth out the bumps in the area's boom-and-bust economy, which is largely subject to the whims of the oil and gas markets, as evidenced by recent price volatility.

"Holtec's diligence and commitment to this much needed project has made them an extraordinary partner, and the NRC's environmental report reaffirms that the HI-STORE CISF will have a positive economic impact on our area's economy, bringing several hundred jobs and economic growth," John Heaton, chair of Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, said in a news release. ELEA is an association formed through a joint-powers agreement between Eddy and Lea counties in order to site a location for a spent nuclear fuel facility in the area. Holtec would purchase the land from ELEA.

The NRC will publish its notice in the Federal Register, after which the commission will receive public comment on the draft statement for a 60-day period. Several public meetings are also set to take place in New Mexico, though dates have yet to be announced. The final EIS and safety evaluation report are scheduled to be published in March 2021, after which a final decision to grant the license would be issued.

Aria covers California and the Southwest from Albuquerque. Her work has appeared in a variety of popular and academic publications.