National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 N.M. counties hope to store nuclear fuel waste

By Charles Taylor


With a new corporate partner to help their proposal, two New Mexico counties are hoping to attract spent nuclear fuel for storage near their shared border.

Lea and Eddy counties hope to establish an interim nuclear fuel consolidated storage facility in Eddy County, near its shared border with Lea, and reap the economic benefits. Preliminary plans would aim for that goal in three years.

The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, LLC (ELEA) owns 1,040 acres, which it calls a suitable site for that facility. ELEA comprises the two counties and the cities of Carlsbad, Eddy County’s seat, and Hobbs in Lea County all of which contributed equally to the land purchase. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) would fund such an operation.

More than 65,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel is already stored in 75 reactor sites nationwide, with 2,000 more tons produced each year. The kind of facility ELEA proposes would consolidate that spent fuel until it can be reprocessed or permanently stored.

The Obama administration defunded construction of a nuclear fuel repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada in 2010, stalling the only progress on a permanent storage facility. Around that time, ELEA, which had formed in 2006 to pitch the region for a now-defunct nuclear project, came out of dormancy to try pitching southeastern New Mexico again.

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Click here to read the Blue Robbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future report to the Department of Energy.

ELEA recently partnered with Areva, a French company known primarily for nuclear power operations, to help field a proposal to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). If chosen, Areva would build and operate the facility.

“That’s a huge step,” said Jack Valpato, an Eddy County commissioner who serves as ELEA’s treasurer. “They focus on the logistics and ELEA can focus on the political side.”

That will include strengthening nuclear power’s image in New Mexico, which already has two nuclear laboratories, both of which have field offices in the Eddy-Lea area, and an operating storage facility.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which ELEA has been following closely as a guide, delivered its final report to DOE in January, making recommendations for managing spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The report endorses a consent-based approach to locating these facilities.

“Trying to force such facilities on unwilling states, tribes and communities has not worked,” it said.

Making ELEA’s case to the federal government will mean convincing the DOE that there’s local consensus favoring the facility, backed up by the existing nuclear storage presence. For 13 years, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) has stored clothing, tools, sludge and soil contaminated with manmade radioactive elements from defense sites. The materials are stored nearly a half mile underground in a salt formation, and most can be stored in barrels and moved by hand, the remainder must be handled by machinery.



“Everyone has grown accustomed to nuclear shipments around here, and people welcome it,” Volpato said. “When WIPP was proposed, I was skeptical. The more I learned and saw it in action, though, I became a convert.”

He said ELEA and Eddy County haven’t received the kind of backlash he expected to news of the plans, a response he attributes to the county’s track record with nuclear material storage.

The proposed storage facility would be above ground. Much of ELEA’s case for the storage facility’s suitability piggy-backs on WIPP’s qualifications — it’s 40-plus miles from any population center, the area is seismically stable, there are no waterways nearby and few weather events that would threaten a storage facility.

“We try to answer questions and be transparent with residents. WIPP has really demonstrated what this could mean to Eddy County,” Volpato said. “We saw Carlsbad transformed by the white-collar workers who moved in.”

Though the land is entirely within Eddy County, Lea County Administrator Mike Gallagher said his residents are generally familiar and comfortable with WIPP’s nearby operations and favor the ELEA’s efforts.

“These projects maintain stringent safety standards, provide quality high-paying jobs, and the communities have demonstrated strong support for these projects,” he said.

Former state Rep. John Heaton is serving as the chairman of ELEA’s board. He said before the ELEA tries to get an NRC license, it will have to win the state’s endorsement. That will involve a strong education and public relations effort, which again will rely heavily on WIPP’s success.

The Blue Ribbon Commission report attributes failures to place a storage facility to state opposition. Yucca Mountain had support from Nye, Mineral and Lincoln counties, but significant outcry from the rest of Nevada and was opposed by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

“Even where local communities or tribal governments have supported a proposed facility, states have often been opposed,” the report said.

Reaching a host agreement with the state would likely have stipulations, Heaton said.

“The state will probably want incentives,” he said. “What those will be I couldn’t tell you. Maybe direct dollars, maybe a new research (facility) being placed in New Mexico.”

Congress must also fund an interim storage facility, and Senate bills to that effect by Lisa Murkowski (D-Alaska) and Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) died this year.

Heaton said he imagined other regions were eyeing this opportunity, but he didn’t know of any, specifically, who had pursued it to the extent that Eddy and Lea counties have.

An NRC spokeswoman was also unfamiliar with any pending proposals.

“We need to clean up the back end of the start of our nuclear age,” Heaton said. “We can take advantage of the economies of scale and stop storing nuclear materials in a power plants all over the country. A storage facility is going to be open in the near future — it should be in southeastern New Mexico.”​