Nuclear power is sometimes touted as a solution to looming climate catastrophe: Reliable on cloudy and windless days, it produces electricity without releasing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, at least once power plants are up and running. While the world looks to shift away from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources, global demand continues to climb.
Nuclear fission currently generates about 11 percent of electricity worldwide every year, and 20 percent in the United States. Proponents of nuclear believe it is uniquely able to be scaled up quickly and reliably enough to displace fossil fuels and meet the world’s growing energy demands.
But nuclear energy means nuclear waste, a problem in search of a solution for decades that remains as vexing as ever. Nuclear utilities in the United States—60 plants in 30 states, as of December 2018—mostly store their spent fuel rods on site, distributing the risk of contamination and leakage around the nation. In 1987 the federal government proposed Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles north of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a permanent centralized repository for such nuclear waste. But sustained in-state resistance led to delays in the site’s development, and the Obama administration mothballed the project in 2009.
Now, another potential storage site has emerged to store spent fuel rods from U.S. power plants. Holtec International, a corporation that specializes in managing spent nuclear fuel, has purchased 1,000 acres of desert in southeastern New Mexico for a “consolidated interim storage facility,” with plans to house 120,000 metric tons of nuclear waste over 40 years, at least initially.
The little cities and towns of New Mexico’s flat southeast, the state’s “nuclear corridor,” are no strangers to the nuclear energy industry. Forty miles from the nation’s only uranium enrichment facility, a dozen miles from the proposed Holtec site, a waste repository houses residue from nuclear research and weapons development across the U.S. A waste facility just across the Texas state line stores materials that have become radioactive by proximity to nuclear materials; the site is looking to expand into higher-level forms of radioactive waste as well.
But, as with Yucca Mountain, local opposition to the facility is mounting. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham came out against the project in early June; Congresswoman Deb Haaland followed in kind, citing risks to the “health and safety of New Mexicans, our economy and our environment.”
State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard accused Holtec of misleading the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission about agreements it had struck with nearby oil and gas operators to ensure that the drilling operations would not disturb the site. Holtec has not responded to requests for comment.
Stephen Aldridge, mayor of the town of Jal some 50 miles south of the site, is concerned about transporting spent nuclear rods to the new facility. Jal’s city council passed a resolution against the project in 2018, based on health and safety concerns. Thousands of workers, some with families, have moved to Jal for the booming oil and gas fields nearby, and Aldridge hopes that some will stay. He worries that the threat of accidents at the new facility will instead push people away.
“It’s not like you’d need a number of instances. Just one does it,” he says. “Coming down the track here, by the highway, pops off, breaks open, that’s it. It’s done. The community’s done.”
Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste program at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, also worries about moving the waste across long distances.
“Is that safe? And if we’re trying to prevent exposures, does that really do it?” he asks.
Hancock, like most Holtec opponents, proposes “hardened on-site storage,” minimizing transportation and bulking up precautions where the waste already is.
Reasons to go forward
Sam Cobb, mayor of Hobbs—35 miles from the proposed site—is a member of the board of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA), a consortium of local governments that sold Holtec the land for the facility. He said he believed that the risks from distributing the waste widely are one of the reasons that a facility ought to be built.
“Even if we never build another nuclear power plant, we still have the end of the fuel cycle that we need to deal with,” he says. “To leave it stranded in population centers around the country—we believe that that is not a good national strategy.”
John Heaton, vice chairman of ELEA, cited extensive stress-testing of the cannisters that will house the waste, suggesting that opposition to Holtec comes from emotional, as opposed to technical, thinking.
“They are people,” he says of the opponents, “who have a radical opinion about anything nuclear. In my mind, they look at the devastation from Nagasaki, what happened there—they just don’t want it. In spite of all the benefits of nuclear, they don’t want it.”
Temporary or permanent?
Some New Mexicans fear that a centralized site in their area could be a lasting commitment. Leona Morgan is co-chair of the Nuclear Issues Study Group, which organizes in-state opposition to Holtec. Morgan and the NISG advocate against nuclear materials statewide and for a wind-down of nuclear power more generally.
“The idea for Holtec is just temporary,” says Morgan. “Right now, nationally, there is no permanent place for anything. Yucca was the idea, but that’s never going to happen. We’re basically fighting what could be a permanent facility.”
Kicking the can down the road is hardly a sufficient to plan for nuclear waste, she says: the Environmental Protection Agency stipulates that the type of nuclear waste Holtec will house must be sequestered for 10,000 years.
Cobb thinks that fears the facility will become permanent are overblown. If the NRC decides the facility cannot house the waste longer than 40 years, it will have that time to decide what to do next. He understands some discomfort with the project, he says. “But you should not ignore the fact that it’s been a part of our country for decades, and there needs to be something done with the waste stream.”
That is perhaps the only point that everyone agrees upon. “There’s nowhere to put the waste—the problem is just going to keep growing,” says Morgan. “So it’s a scary time right now. The reactors are old, and as more of them shut down, there’s going to be a push from more people saying, ‘get it out of here.’"
“But that’s stupid,” she says. “It’s not safe for you, but it’s safe for us?”
For now, the federal government has decided that it is safe enough, and the facility remains on track for licensing next year, according to Holtec. What happens then may affect the area for tens of thousands of years to come.