Originally published at https://santafenewmexican.com on February 11, 2023.
It’s happened again. Late last month, a federal judge dismissed activists’ attempt to stop Interim Storage Partners from building a facility for spent nuclear fuel in Andrews County, Texas.
The ruling was merely the latest in a long string of defeats for the company’s enemies. Just to the west, in Lea County, N.M., Holtec International is seeking to establish a similar project. Its proposal has been plagued by a litany of baseless challenges, too.
The Southwest Public Policy Institute cannot find a single valid reason why either facility should not be permitted. As advocates for smart economic development in our region, we’re puzzled by the hysterical, science-free resistance to two investments that promise both jobs and tax revenue for rural communities in the Lone Star State and the Land of Enchantment.
Notwithstanding what you’ve “learned” from Homer Simpson, spent nuclear fuel isn’t green, it doesn’t glow and it doesn’t ooze from leaky barrels. As the U.S. Department of Energy explains, it is “small ceramic pellets of low-enriched uranium oxide,” enclosed in “a metallic cladding,” collected “into tall fuel assemblies.” Removed from a reactor, spent nuclear fuel is highly radioactive, of course, but when properly shielded, it poses no danger to humans, wildlife and the environment.
Interim Storage Partners and Holtec International intend to store spent nuclear fuel because the federal government has bungled its responsibility to place all of the nation’s inventory at a single facility in Nevada. Washington’s failure is a lengthy and complicated political imbroglio, but the real-world consequence is that nuclear plants — many in, or finished with, the process of decommissioning — are running out of places to put their leftovers. Spent nuclear fuel must go somewhere, and there is money to be made gathering it in centralized sites.
Fortunately, the transportation of spent nuclear fuel has an unblemished record. The containers utilized are impressive. As 19 members of the National Academy of Engineering put it, “[E]xtensive analysis, backed by full-scale field tests, show that there is virtually nothing one could do to these shipping casks that would cause a significant public hazard.”
Liberal novelist/journalist and New Mexico native Gwyneth Cravens marveled at how the devices were tested: “They’ve been rammed into concrete barriers, T-boned by speeding locomotives, dropped from high altitudes onto long steel spikes, plunged into churning rivers, submerged for extended periods, burned with jet fuel for 90 minutes, and otherwise roughly handled. They’ve held. Infant car seats are much more loosely regulated.”
Spent nuclear fuel is safe to move, and certainly safe to store in an area of the country that is brutally dry, incredibly isolated and seismically stable. (It would be difficult to find two sites better suited to the task.)
But standing in the way is the worst kind of NIMBY opportunism.
While the proposed facilities are strongly supported in their local communities, state and federal politicians, working with anti-nuclear agitators, have been fiercely resistant. While professional alarmists lost another battle against Interim Storage Partners last month, legal opposition by both state governments remains to be resolved. (And sadly, both Republicans and Democrats are proving to be obtuse.)
New Mexico’s lawmakers are currently considering a bill to prohibit the storage or disposal of “spent fuel or high-level waste” unless the state gives its consent and a federal repository “is in operation.” The legislation is getting a lot of media attention, but even if signed into law, it is likely to be overturned. In 2018, the Land of Enchantment’s attorney general admitted “the State of New Mexico has limited recourse if it were to oppose federal licensure of a proposed interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel.” (Though that didn’t stop him from filing two lawsuits anyway.)
So the courtroom wrangling continues. If leaders in Texas and New Mexico could look past the politics and see the opportunity, they’d understand how Interim Storage Partners and Holtec International can benefit their states. Absent such vision, let’s hope that common sense, sound science/engineering and wise judicial analysis prevail over ignorance and hysteria.