Plans announced for New Mexico used fuel store

30 April 2015

Holtec International and Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA) have announced plans for a consolidated interim used nuclear fuel storage facility in south-eastern New Mexico.

ELEA was created in 2006 by Eddy County, Lea County and the cities of Hobbs and Carlsbad to secure funding from the Department of Energy (DOE) to site a used fuel recycling facility as well as an advanced recycling reactor under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). However, ELEA announced in 2011 that it was interested in hosting an interim used fuel storage facility.

Holtec and ELEA have now announced the signing of a memorandum of agreement which covers the design, licensing, construction and operation of a facility modelled on Holtec's HI-STORM UMAX dry storage system. For its part, ELEA will provide the land and local logistics support, including existing environmental characterization data.

The underground facility would store high-level radioactive waste in some 3600 steel and concrete canisters and would have a service life of up to 100 years. It will occupy some 32 acres (13 hectares) of a 1000-acre (405-hectare) site mid-way between Hobbs and Carlsbad that ELEA originally purchased for the DOE's GNEP program. According to Holtec, the facility would be able to store "the entire design capacity of the Yucca Mountain repository".

Holtec anticipates the facility could be brought online in "as little as" four to five years. Licensing of the fuel store by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would take a minimum of three years, it said.

Holtec's HI-STORM UMAX technology is being deployed to store used fuel at two US nuclear power plants - Callaway and San Onofre. A national interim storage facility based on the technology is also under construction in Ukraine.

At a press conference in Albuquerque yesterday, ELEA chairman John Heaton said: "This agreement is a process that we will start through to develop a contract between ourselves and Holtec. Obviously, the State of New Mexico is critical in this whole issue."

Holtec CEO Chris Singh described the project as "the national solution for a chronic problem that has not been solved".

South-eastern New Mexico already hosts two significant nuclear facilities - the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad and Urenco's National Enrichment Facility in Eunice. Located in a 655-metre-deep geologic salt formation, WIPP is the final resting place for transuranic waste - material contaminated with man-made radioisotopes that are heavier than uranium - from the US defence sector. The facility is the world's first underground repository for the permanent disposal of transuranic radioactive waste, and has been in operation since 1999.

The Washington DC-based Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) welcomed the announcement. NEI vice president for governmental affairs Alex Flint said, "The nuclear industry has tremendous respect for the political leaders in New Mexico, who for years have been at the forefront of understanding nuclear issues. Where others see challenges, they see opportunities. That has been New Mexico's history since the beginning of the nuclear era. This is one more example of New Mexicans who see an opportunity to lead by creating a valuable business."

He added, "The United States needs a sound used fuel program. That program should include a permanent geologic repository and consolidated storage, developed concurrently."

The US government is legally responsible for developing a long-term disposal strategy for used nuclear fuel. From 1992 until 2009, that strategy had been the Yucca Mountain repository. The DOE announced a new waste disposal strategy in early 2013, envisaging a series of interim stores until a permanent underground disposal facility is ready for service around 2048.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News