Decommissioning causes nuclear conundrum

By Patricia Cardona, 
Nuclear-Waste Team

The Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter has intervened with the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to prevent Holtec International from obtaining a license to construct and manage a consolidated interim storage site between Hobbs and Carlsbad, N.M., for “high level” spent fuel rods from uranium-powered plants.

The concerns are the presence of excess radiation in the area and that, once established, the storage site will be permanent and possibly forgotten.

There are approximately 100 uranium-powered plants in the United States. They are located in urban centers near waterways that are used to cool the operation of the power plants.

Utility owners and these communities’ elected officials are  “decommissioning” aged-out uranium-powered plants. They want to find a place to store all the irradiated materials from the plants away from their original locations. There is no technology capable of removing radiation, which lasts 10,000 years or more. Communities where the power plants are located want to reclaim the land for economic development. Investors are reluctant to finance areas where radiation is present.

During “decommissioning,” the concrete, equipment, structures, reactor vessels, steam generators, large pumping systems, workers’ clothing,  and surrounding soil that have become infused with radiation also need to be stored at isolated storage sites. These are generally referred to as “low-level” waste.

Companies like Holtec that specialize in storing irradiated waste begin to look for “unpopulated” rural areas.  On a map, southeastern New Mexico looks like it is just empty space. Yet it is rich in organic food products from pecans, dairy farms, cattle raising and other economic activity like gas and oil operations.

There are deep concerns that excess radiation will contaminate natural resources like soil, air and water used by these businesses — as well as negatively impact human health and other natural life, including wildlife and native plants.

Another company, Waste Control Specialists, is requesting licensing for additional storage of low-level radiation waste and more high-level waste in the same area, but on the Texas side. This would concentrate all the radiation from all the power plants in the United States into one area of the country.

At Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearings Jan. 23, the Sierra Club attorney will make the case to prevent this from happening. Attendance at the hearing will provide the opportunity to understand additional issues. Please attend and show support for Sierra Club’s position. Our attorneys need your support in protecting New Mexico.

Featured image of a nuclear power plant from Wikipedia

Decommissioning causes nuclear conundrum
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