The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has issued a draft environmental impact statement for Holtec International's proposed construction of a consolidated HI-STORE interim storage facility (CISF) near Carlsbad in New Mexico.

The NRC made a preliminary recommendation that there are no environmental impacts that would preclude it from issuing a licence for environmental reasons.

Holtec proposes to store 500 canisters holding around 8680t of used nuclear fuel at the  site  “temporarily” until a permanent repository is developed. The proposed site is a remote location between Eddy and Lea counties.

Supporters of the project have highlighted potential economic benefits the project could bring, while diversifying the economy of a region that is  largely dependent on oil & gas production. Opponents, however have expressed concern about the dangers of bringing more nuclear material to New Mexico, and burying it near subsurface oil&gas drilling operations.

The EIS, which considered the facility’s impact for the 40-year term of the licence application, argued that the used fuel would be stored well above the depth of most oil and gas operations. It therefore rated the impacts of construction, operations and decommissioning as “small,” the lowest rating possible. However, it did not consider potential expansions to operate longer or hold more than the initial 8680t of fuel.

The US has more than 80,000 metric tonnes with 2000 metric tonnes being generated a year, according to a report from Holtec. Further expansions could increase the facility’s capacity to 10,000 canisters of used nuclear fuel or 173,600 metric tonnes.

NRC through its EIS recommended that Holtec should be issued a licence for the first phase of the project. This conclusion was based on an environment report from Holtec, together with NRC staff’s consultation with federal, state and tribal groups, the NRC’s own environmental review and its consideration of public comments. The recommendation is pending an upcoming safety review and review of the project’s potential compliance with federal law.

John Heaton, chair of the local Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA) said he expected the final EIS to be released in about a year, along with the safety evaluation report that will study the security of the facility itself. He said if both reports are positive, a licence should be forthcoming.  

Holtec CEO Kris Singh said the NRC’s draft EIS is a "major regulatory milestone" for HI-STORE CISF as well as wider effort to aggregate the used nuclear fuel canisters stored across the country into one secure location.

"Our stakeholders should know that our HI-STORE underground storage system in New Mexico has the three coveted characteristics, namely readily retrievable canisters to enable at-will relocation, extreme resistance to terror and hurricanes, and a geologically stable terrain that precludes the incidence of earthquakes," Singh said.

Holtec hopes to bring further economic benefits to the host  through a programme to use waste heat from the stored canisters to purify wastewater from fracking, he said.

However, Don Hancock at the Southwest Research and Information Centre argued the EIS was “inadequate” as it failed to consider operation beyond the 40-year period in its initial application.

He added that while the EIS contended the waste would be stored well above the depths oil and gas is extracted from, it did not account for future extraction operations that could be built close to the facility.

The NRC is currently seeking public comments on the draft EIS. These will be taken into consideration before NRC prepares the final EIS, which is scheduled for publication in March 2021.

A parallel technical safety review of the application is scheduled to be completed with a Safety Evaluation Report (SER) to be published also in March 2021. A decision on whether to grant the licence would follow thereafter, the NRC said.

Photo: Holtec's proposed consolidated interim storage facility

Date: Friday, 20 March 2020
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