US regulators take public comments on nuclear fuel plan

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — U.S. nuclear regulators have hosted their final public hearing on a proposal to build a multibillion-dollar complex in southern New Mexico to store spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants around the country, and there’s still disagreement about whether granting a license to Holtec International would be a good thing.

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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission heard from both supporters and critics during Wednesday's meeting. In a preliminary recommendation, the commission favored approval of a license for Holtec International to build the facility in southeastern New Mexico.

The NRC staff’s preliminary recommendation states there are no environmental impacts that would preclude the commission from issuing a license for environmental reasons. A study on the project’s impact on human safety is pending and will require another round of public comment.

New Jersey-based Holtec is seeking a 40-year license to build what it has described as a state-of-the-art complex near Carlsbad. The first phase calls for storing up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, which would be packed into 500 canisters. Future expansion could make room for as many as 10,000 canisters of spent nuclear fuel.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other elected officials are among those with concerns about the potential environmental effects and the prospects of New Mexico becoming a permanent dumping ground for spent nuclear fuel. They point to the lack of a permanent plan by the federal government for dealing with the waste piling up at power plants around the country.

The governor and others also have questions about whether the facility would compromise oil and gas development in the Permian Basin, one of the world’s most prolific energy production regions. There also have been questions raised about transportation.

Jack Edlow — president of Edlow International, a national transportation company specializing in nuclear materials — said during the meeting that he supported the findings in the draft environmental review and pointed to shipments of nuclear material throughout the world that were achieved safely.

He said there's always consultation on the transportation routes for nuclear materials.

“This is not done without the knowledge or consent and advice of the state,” Edlow said. “I believe the transportation of spent nuclear fuel for the Holtec project can be managed safely."

Protesters during Wednesday’s meeting questioned the commission's decision to hold public hearings online and via phone amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They suggested that it reduced public participation and was a way to rush the project, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported.

John Tappert, the commission's director of rulemaking, environmental and financial support, said federal law and regulations do not require the commission to hold hearings in New Mexico and that the NRC shifted to remote hearings to meet public health restrictions on gatherings during the pandemic.

Tappert noted that the public has until Sept. 22 to submit comments.

Rose Gardner, a resident of Eunice and member of the Alliance for Environmental Strategies, argued that the project was illegal under federal law and unfairly impacted Hispanic communities in rural New Mexico.

“The National Waste Policy Act does not allow for this license to be issued and a privately-owned corporation to take the high-level waste from commercial reactors,” Gardner said. “The failure of the NRC to satisfy the public with these poorly run and moderated webinars is an example of government waste as usual.”

New Mexico Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, and members of the state congressional delegation have called on the commission to postpone the licensing process until the pandemic eases.