Transporting nuclear waste to southeast New Mexico became one of the most controversial aspects of a proposal to temporarily store spent nuclear fuel rods at a location near Carlsbad and Hobbs.
The company heading up the proposed project, Holtec International, applied for a federal license to store the waste through the Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC), but not to move it.
That would take additional federal oversight.
Holtec officials contend the transportation canisters and rail cars used to in the process, which would see the waste brought from generator sites across the country, is a safe and proven transportation method.
NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said the current application for interim storage does require Holtec to inspect fuel canisters for safety when they arrive at the facility.
“Commercial spent nuclear fuel must be transported in a NRC-certified transportation package and the transportation must meet NRC security requirements,” Burnell said. “Additionally, the current application describes the procedures proposed to be used by Holtec to inspect the spent fuel canisters prior to accepting them at the facility.”
Transportation is considered, he said, in the environmental review part of the application per the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which is intended to create an environmental impact statement (EIS) that will be released as a draft for public comment.
“The environmental review will evaluate the impact of the project on transportation resources and will document those findings in an EIS,” Burnell said.
Holtec’s proposal also does not yet specify where exactly the waste would come from. Burnell said that choice is a business decision to be made by the company.
And if Holtec seeks to expand its license to include more waste, Burnell said additional evaluations would be needed.
“Those potential future license amendments would be subject to a separate safety, security, and environmental review,” he said.
Opposing activists from within and outside of New Mexico worried an accident could cause the waste to leak out during the ride, potentially exposing communities along the way to radiation.
But Pierre Oneid, Holtec senior vice president and chief nuclear officer said such an incident is “virtually impossible.”
Despite what he called a “safe system” Oneid said the much of opposition is simply fearful of “anything nuclear.”
“The main opposition we see will come from people who are just opposed to all nuclear, and most of them are out of state,” he said. “Any chance they have to fly the anti-nuclear flag, they’ll do it. I hope New Mexico can see through it, and allow the economic development.”
He argued the spent fuel is extracted from generator sites in the form of ceramic pellets, binded together in large, steel tubes known as assemblies.
They are then stored in reinforced steel transport casks.
Oneid said there’s simply no way for the waste to leak.
“This has been going on for 50 years,” Oneid said of transporting spent nuclear waste. “How do you think we’ve been getting stuff to Sandia (National Laboratory) or Los Alamos (National Laboratory), and all the facilities around the country.
“The burden of proof is on us. If we didn’t believe in it, we wouldn’t spend the capital.”
More than 25,000 shipments of used nuclear fuel were made to date across the world, per a report from U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), with about 1,300 in the United States.
Most shipments were performed by rail, without any radiological releases, read a Holtec report.
If an accident did occur, Oneid said Holtec will share liability with the DOE, using the federal agency's insurance policy, pending negotiations.
“Thanks to the robust transportation cask designs and stringent safety measures adopted by the industry, every one of these used fuel shipments has been safely completed with no release of radioactivity or environmental damage,” read the Holtec report.
The Holtec report also cited about 850 shipments made by the U.S. Navy during the past 60 years, covering about 1.6 million miles, also without any radiological release.
The report credited oversight from the NRC, and the federal Department of Transportation for the “impeccable” record.
“The DOT coordinates with the NRC to set rules for the packaging of nuclear material, regulates carriers, and sets standards for routes,” read the Holtec report. “DOT also works with the NRC and affected states to regulate the transport operations while they occur.”
But the key to safe transportation of the nuclear fuel rods, is in the casks.
And Holtec designed them under regulation from the NRC, which requires four main tests of the casks' integrity and safety.
The casks are burned with fire, submerged under water, drop from a high distance, and dropped on a spike in an evaluation known as a “puncture test.”
If none of the tests result in a rupture, the NRC decides they are ready for use.
Holtec holds licenses for two such casks, designed with multiple layers of steel, lead and other materials intended to protect the shipments and also shield workers.
Typical casks weigh 125 tons or more, read the report, with about 4 tons for every ton of waste.
The radiation exuded by the casks means a person standing 2 meters away for 25 minutes would receive about the same dose of radiation as a single dental x-ray, read the report.
But even that level of exposure isn’t likely, records show.
“A member of the public would be further away from a transport cask, and typically for a shorter period of time, hence the dose would be much lower,” read the report. “Rather than evaluating the dose to an individual member of the public, it is therefore more meaningful to evaluate the total collective dose to all members of the public near the transport path for a transportation cask.”
That dose to the public along the route would be much lower, as few people would come that close to the cannisters, the report read, citing an NRC evaluation.
“The only conclusion that can be made from that is that the dose from transportation of used nuclear fuel is truly negligible,” the report read.
Oneid said Holtec is also concerned with the public’s safety at generator sites where the waste is currently stored in cooling pools.
In the U.S., about 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel is stored at 73 nuclear sites and four DOE sites in 35 states, records show, using 2,700 used fuel containers.
There is an increase of about 2,000 metric tons per year.
“Most of these (storage casks) are designed to be transportable and their designers have either obtained, or intend to seek, licenses from the NRC for transport,” read Holtec’s report.
Shipments are constantly monitored when in route, with communications set up between Holtec, law enforcement, local governments and Native American tribes along the path.
Axels will be added to the rail cars to handle the additional weight, and the speed of the cars will be lowered to reduce the impact if an accident did occur.
Holtec officials said there will be about one shipment per month.
John Heaton, chair of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, the agency that partnered with Holtec for the project, said all arguments against the project to date are not based in reality.
“We never hear the facts,” he said. “We hear only facts and hyperbole. Where is the really legitimate way that (the waste) could escape? We can address questions if they’re legitimate.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.