A proposed project to store high-level nuclear waste in southeast New Mexico faced continued delays as federal regulators were unsatisfied with answers given by the company hoping to build the facility near the Eddy-Lea county line.
In a letter to Holtec International, the company proposing the facility, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said responses to its recent inquiries were inadequate, meaning publication the project’s final environmental impact statement was pushed back from November 2021 and a safety evaluation report (SER) was delayed from a planned January 2022 publication date.
The Nov. 19 letter did not include alternative publication dates and delaying those documents could set the project back as Holtec officials planned to open the site and begin operations in 2024.
The Holtec site would be used to temporarily store up to 100,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods, brought to New Mexico via generators and nuclear power plants across the U.S.
The company first submitted its application for a license to build and operate the facility in 2017, facing immediate backlash from environmental groups and government watchdogs who contended the risk of exposure to the people of New Mexico was too great.
Many feared that because the U.S. does not have a repository for high-level nuclear waste, Holtec’s “temporary” site become permanent.
Supporters of the project, mostly leaders from southeast New Mexico, argued the site would provide much-needed economic diversity to the oil and gas-dependent region while assisting with the national goal of cleaning up nuclear waste.
A draft environmental impact statement issued by the NRC last year recommended the license be granted to Holtec, but amid the draft’s review additional questions arose.
The new questions related to Holtec’s analysis of hazards potentially posed to the facility by nearby gas pipelines and possible flooding events.
The NRC was also not satisfied with Holtec’s responses on calculations for radiation doses potentially received offsite along with several revisions to evaluations of the projects structural, operations, materials and aging management.
In the NRC’s letter, the agency said in planned to submit its third set of requests for additional information (RAIs) on the remaining issues, and seek a revised schedule from the company for when the answers would be provided before the NRC could revise its schedule for completing the environmental and safety analysis.
The initial delays came after NRC’s second round of RAIs was submitted in May, with Holtec responding to the inquiry in August.
Problems were found in those answers, records show, delaying the project by several months and leading to the revised November publication date.
But with the NRC’s latest concerns, that date would also be deferred.
“Due to these deficiencies and the delay in Holtec providing complete responses by the August 30, 2021, date, the NRC staff determined that it will not be able to complete its safety and security review and publish a final SER by January 2022,” the letter read.
“In addition, the NRC staff will also adjust the publication date of the final environmental impact statement to coordinate with the revised final SER schedule.”
Holtec spokesman Joe Delmar said the company planned to respond promptly to the NRC’s request. He said the planned completion date of 2024 still stood.
“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing process is rigorous, thorough and transparent to ensure the protection of public health and safety and the protection of the environment,” Delmar said.
“Holtec will provide the additional information requested by the NRC that will confirm the large margins of safety that are inherent in the design of the HI-STORM UMAX system and the HI-STORE CISF facility.”
Delmar said Holtec’s ultimate answers would allay safety concerns for the project, citing support from local leaders via a consortium of leaders from the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, and Eddy and Lea counties known as the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance.
“Holtec remains committed to completing the NRC’s licensing process for HI-STORE CISF and remains equally committed to providing the country a safe, secure, retrievable and centralized facility for storing spent nuclear fuel on an interim basis,” Delmar said.
“Working closely with our partner the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance, the project continues to have strong local support.”
In a public comment submitted to the NRC, Carlsbad City Councilor Judy Waters said the project would benefit the local economy and posed little safety risk when complete and operational.
“I believe that the impacts from this project will be positive for the area and the constituents I represent,” Waters wrote. “I do not believe that there will be any significant adverse impacts on our area. Please consider licensing this worthwhile facility with all haste, as there is a great national need for a facility of this type.”
While that support may have come from local government leaders in the region, state officials and activists alike expressed dire concerns about the project.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called the proposal “economic malpractice” for the purported risk she said it would pose to nearby extraction and agricultural industries, while the State’s Attorney General filed a lawsuit still against the NRC earlier this year to block the project’s federal approval.
“I am taking legal action because I want to mitigate dangers to our environment and to other energy sectors,” Balderas said. “It is fundamentally unfair for our residents to bear the risks of open ended uncertainty.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.