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The American Southwest’s Spent Nuclear Fuel Opportunity

Our region has what it takes to address a national challenge – guess who’s standing in the way?

While the Southwest Public Policy Institute didn’t exist seven years ago, SPPI Senior Fellow D. Dowd Muska did. And on February 3, 2016, he wrote:

[A]nyone who’s looked at the U.S. Department of Energy’s management of the [Yucca Mountain] project … recognizes that a one-size-fits all, bureaucrat-administered “answer” to the nuclear industry’s problem of radioactive leftovers is profoundly unwise.

More than $15 billion in ratepayer revenue has been spent on Yucca, but not one fuel rod has made its way to Nevada. (The Department of Energy was supposed to start filling the repository in 1998.)

The good news is that there’s a growing awareness that other options should be pursued. … There’s plenty of money left in the Nuclear Waste Fund, and every penny should be spent on alternatives to Yucca.

One possibility is Holtec International’s proposal to build an interim facility between Carlsbad and Hobbs. …

As an element of a broader effort to privatize high-level nuclear waste, Holtec’s safe, secure storage could help drive a stake through the heart of the Yucca boondoggle. Best of all, it would be real, sustainable economic development for New Mexico — based not on another infusion of federal cash, but a market-oriented response to epic-level D.C. incompetence.

D. Dowd Muska

We’ve come a long way since then. In July, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission published its final environmental impact statement for Holtec’s consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) for spent nuclear fuel (SNF), recommending the issuance of a license for both construction and operation. The agency’s safety evaluation report is imminent. A final license decision will follow.

But just over the state line, in Andrews County, Texas, another company plans to operate its own CISF. In 2021, Interim Storage Partners (ISP) won NRC approval for a similar complex. 

“A one-size-fits all, bureaucrat-administered ‘answer’ to the nuclear industry’s problem of radioactive leftovers is profoundly unwise.”

There’s the making of an “industry cluster” in the region – a hub for storage of SNF until a permanent solution for the national impasse is found. The risk to Texans and New Mexicans is tiny, and more than manageable, while the benefits promise to be substantial. 

But standing in the way is the worst kind of NIMBY opportunism. 

While the proposed CISFs are strongly supported in their local communities, state and federal politicians, working with anti-nuclear agitators, have been fiercely resistant. Happily, to date, all efforts to derail the regulatory process have been unsuccessful. Last week, for example, “a federal court denied a series of oppositions” by green radicals contesting the NRC’s decision to grant ISP its license. (Legal opposition by both state governments remains to be resolved.)

New Mexico’s lawmakers are 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 Enchantnment’s attorney general admitted that “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 against the NRC.)

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 CISFs 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.

3 replies on “The American Southwest’s Spent Nuclear Fuel Opportunity”

Until there is a viable recycling operation at least in the final design and financial stages, resist this. If they get it in without recycling they will take the easy way out and it will become permanent, much to the great detriment of New Mexico!

I do not understand why N.M. doesn’t accept nuclear waste at a tax rate of $1 million per pound of waste stored.

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