New Mexico Is Divided Over The ‘Perfect Site’ To Store Nation’s Nuclear Waste

A 1,000-acre patch of southeast New Mexico desert may offer a temporary solution to the nation’s longstanding nuclear waste problem.

Nathan Rott/NPR

Thirty-five miles out of Carlsbad, in the pancake-flat desert of southeast New Mexico, there’s a patch of scrub-covered dirt that may offer a fix — albeit temporarily — to one of the nation’s most vexing and expensive environmental problems: What to do with our nuclear waste?

Despite more than 50 years of searching and billions of dollars spent, the federal government still hasn’t been able to identify a permanent repository for nuclear material. No state seems to want it.

So instead, dozens of states are stuck with it. More than 80,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, a still-radioactive byproduct of nuclear power generation, is spread across the country at power plants and sites in 35 states.

The issue has dogged politicians for decades. Energy Secretary Rick Perry recently described the situation as a “logjam.” But some hope that this remote, rural corner of New Mexico may present a breakthrough.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering a proposal by Holtec International, a private U.S.-based company, to build a massive consolidated interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel on that patch of desert. It could eventually hold up to 100,000 metric tons of the material, storing it until a permanent repository is found.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed interim nuclear storage facility in southeast New Mexico.

Courtesy of Holtec International

The bid has support from a group of local officials, drawn by the promise of tax revenues, high-paying jobs and a stable source of income.

The same appears to be true in Washington, D.C., where lawmakers are anxious to find a solution and have indicated an openness to change laws, making it easier for private companies to manage nuclear fuel.

But familiar challenges persist.

A broad coalition of local and national groups opposes the plan, as does the state’s new governor. They’re worried about transporting the nuclear waste and the environmental impacts of storing it.

“Why should we be the ones to take this negative project on and put up with the consequences?” says Rose Gardner, a florist who lives 35 miles from the proposed site. “We didn’t get any of the nuclear generated electricity. We’re not even involved.”

Rose Gardner, a vocal opponent of Holtec’s proposal, doesn’t see why her small, rural corner of New Mexico should take on the nation’s nuclear waste.

Nathan Rott/NPR

An expensive and expansive problem

The question of what to do with spent nuclear fuel has plagued the U.S. since before the nation’s first commercial nuclear power plant was even running.

In 1982 Congress got involved, passing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which called for the development of repositories for the nation’s high-level nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel.

Five years later, it narrowed those efforts, focusing on a single area 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas: Yucca Mountain.

The federal government has spent billions of dollars assessing the viability of a deep underground storage facility there. For decades, Yucca looked like the destination for nuclear waste.

A map of current storage sites for high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel in the U.S.

Department of Energy

But efforts to move that project forward were stifled by local opposition. Stuck at an impasse, and under pressure from then-Senate Majority Leader and Nevadan Harry Reid, the Obama administration scrapped funding for the site in 2009.

The Trump administration has called for funding to revive the Yucca Mountain project, but local resistance remains and Nevada lawmakers have dug in their heels.

In the meantime, spent nuclear fuel continues to build up at scores of power plants around the country, at facilities that weren’t designed to store it.

The problem with this is two-fold.

For one, it’s expensive. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act said that the Department of Energy would find a permanent home for utilities’ nuclear waste by 1998. It didn’t. So now, the Department of Energy pays utility companies more than $2 million a day to store that nuclear waste on-site. That’s taxpayer money.

The other problem is public safety.

More than 1 in 3 Americans lives within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, according to Columbia University. Many of those plants are now storing spent nuclear fuel on coastlines or near rivers, areas that are more prone to flooding and natural disasters.

The shuttered San Onofre power plant is one of California’s two nuclear power plants located near active earthquake faults. Spent nuclear fuel is being stored there currently.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

“There’s no question, from a safety perspective, from a risk perspective, from an economic perspective, consolidated interim storage makes a lot of sense,” says John Heaton, a former New Mexico state legislator who’s part of a group trying to bring the facility to the state. “We’re in a seismically stable, dry place. It’s more or less a perfect site.”

A “consent-based” approach

In 2010, fresh off its decision to end funding for Yucca Mountain, the Obama administration commissioned a blue ribbon panel to look at America’s nuclear waste problem.

One of its top recommendations was to authorize and establish consolidated interim storage facilities. But to avoid another-Yucca like impasse, it also recommended using a new “consent-based approach” when finding a location.

“We believe this type of approach can provide the flexibility and sustain the public trust and confidence needed to see controversial facilities through to completion,” the report said.

But figuring out how to define that consent, and then getting it from various communities, industries and interests, will be difficult.

Ranchers and dairy producers in New Mexico worryabout what impact the Holtec facility would have on their industry, real or perceived. There’s a fear that consumers wouldn’t want to buy beef or milk from a place that’s also home to the nation’s biggest collection of nuclear material.

There are also concerns from some in the region’s biggest industry: oil and gas. The proposed site is in the Permian Basin, one of the busiest oil fields in the world.

Drilling rigs and pump-jacks dot the desert of the Permian Basin, where Holtec is proposing to build the interim nuclear storage facility.

Nathan Rott/NPR

“I understand we have to solve this problem,” says Tommy Taylor, director of oil and gas development at Fasken Oil and Ranch, a Texas-based company with wells near the proposed site. “[But] don’t put this in an oil field. That’s a bad idea. Certainly not the biggest oil field the United States has.”

Taylor feels the same way about another proposed interim storage facility in the Permian Basin, near the Texas-New Mexico border. That proposal, by Texas-based Waste Control and Storage Services, is also being considered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“My specialty is drilling wells,” Taylor says. “We use the best technology we have, the best materials we can get, and the best tools. And even though you’re trying to do the best you can — still, things happen.”

The companies behind both proposals insist that the projects would be safe. Advocates for the Holtec proposal say that the amount of radiation coming off of one of the storage containers the company plans to use is about the same as a microwave.

“This isn’t some Homer Simpson green sludge that’s going to leak out and who know’s what’s going to happen, people with three-eyes and that sort of thing,” says Jason Shirley, a Carlsbad City Council member, who was skeptical himself before seeing a video of a Holtec storage container surviving a mock missile strike. “When I’m able to explain this and educate people, they support it.”

A “missile test” of Holtec’s storage canisters.

Nuclear Energy Institute via YouTube

“It won’t go.”

Thirty-five miles from the patch of desert Holtec wants to turn into an interim storage facility, and about 5 miles from a Texas company’s proposed site, is the boom-or-bust town of Eunice, N.M.

Pump-jacks bob among the houses, and the streets are jammed with traffic from the surrounding oil fields.

Down a quiet side street, Rose Gardner, an opponent of both proposals, is taking three grandchildren for a walk.

“We know it’s supposed to be consent-based,” she says. “They’re not getting consent. The actual people aren’t for it. And without community support, it won’t go.”

“I’ve got three little babies here and nobody’s speaking up for them,” says Rose Gardner, who’s worried about what the proposed facility would mean for her grandchildren’s future.

Nathan Rott/NPR

There is a history here, though, of nuclear projects that she’s well aware of.

Twenty years ago, nearby, the U.S. government built the country’s only deep-underground storage facility for radioactive material, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project. It’s designed to store lower-level nuclear waste from research laboratories and weapons facilities around the country.

A similar debate played out before the construction of that facility. Supporters touted the jobs and income it would bring. Opponents worried about safety. And there havebeen issues.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is mindful of those and is unequivocal in her feelings about Holtec’s proposal.

“There’s nobody that’s been able to demonstrate to me that there isn’t risk here,” she says. “There is risk. We need to be clear about that. I don’t think it’s the right decision for the state.”

Back at the proposed site for Holtec’s interim storage facility, a sign lies on its side, uprooted from the ground and punctured with bullet holes.

Asked if it should be seen as an indication of the plan’s local support, former state legislator John Heaton laughs.

“You know how it is in the Wild West,” he says. “People with guns can’t resist putting holes in any sign anywhere.”

A sign at the proposed interim nuclear storage site lies on its side and is riddled with bullet holes.

Nathan Rott/NPR

Bald eagles are taking trash from a Seattle landfill and dumping it into suburban yards

It is raining trash in the suburbs of Seattle. Or, rather, bald eagles – around 200 of them – are dropping trash into people’s yards every day, and the suburbanites are not happy.

The trash – including a blood-filled biohazard container that landed in one lucky resident’s yard – is coming from a nearby landfill that takes in two tons of fresh trash a day. The bald eagles pick out the juicy morsels of food found in the landfill, and then discard the junk that they don’t want in the nearby neighborhoods.

According to Popular Mechanics:

The main issue is the open-air landfill in the area, the Cedar Hills Regional Landfill in King County. That landfill was supposed to have been closed years ago, but a proposed expansion has kept it open. In fact, that expansion is meant to keep the landfill exposed until 2040…

Many of the residents want the county to cancel the proposed expansion and finally close the landfill. In the meantime the residents are hoping to implement some sort of anti-eagle measures at the landfill, although it’s not entirely clear what those would look like.

There’s something almost poetic about the American national bird reminding people that the trash they throw in a landfill doesn’t simply disappear. In a way, these birds are a visceral demonstration of the usually hidden consequences of extreme consumption. We create too much trash, and that much trash creates consequences. That could mean eagles dropping biohazard containers in your front lawn, or it could mean nearly 20 tons of plastic washing up on one of the most remote beaches in the world.

Image: by Carl Chapman from Phoenix, usa – Eagle ShotsCC BY 2.0Link

Letter: Peril of fishing debris

Peril of fishing debris

Friends of Animals has followed your profoundly sad, but important story about an osprey rescue ending tragically, (Hearst Connecticut Media, Aug. 7, 2018) followed by your excellent “Thumbs down” editorial, plus an article in which the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) warned that wildlife gets tangled up in the nearly invisible fishing line, “causing serious harm or death.”

Without prompting anglers to dispose of fishing lines, hooks and garbage properly, as your editorial says, there’s a “huge threat to wildlife,” including sea birds, sea mammals, turtles, fish and others. It’s astonishing that the first effort to avert this littering disaster comes from “a proactive student group in Fairfield that is building fishing line bins,” and that two conservation groups will install them at beaches and marinas.

Cheers for that productive action. Others can quit fishing and fish consumption.

There are facts about the tons of plastic floating in our waterways that may be underreported.

First, those piles are mostly made of abandoned fishing equipment, which means many anglers are undisciplined slobs.

Microplastics make up only 8 percent of the total tonnage of garbage in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (between Hawaii and California), while fishing nets account for 46 percent. The rest is other fishing gear, and debris from the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, according to National Geographic.

Banning things such as single-use plastic bags and straws feels productive, but it’s not the best way to stop plastic pollution of our oceans. We need fishermen to stop treating our oceans like trash cans.

And developing countries must do a better job of putting trash in landfills and converting plastics to energy, according to the Ocean Conservancy.

Priscilla Feral

The writer is president of the Darien-based Friends Friends of Animals.

Waste Trapping More Wild Animals

PLACER COUNTY (CBS13) — There are new wildlife worries for local animal rescue workers after another wild animal was spotted with its head trapped inside a plastic jar.

This is the third time in recent months an animal has been found trapped in a container.

Cellphone video shows a fox with its head inserted inside a jar, leaving it disoriented, and struggling to survive.

ALSO: Deer With Mouth Stuck In Jar Tranquilized And Freed

The fox, found Sunday after being spotted by a person who lives in the Placer County hills, is the third rescue of its kind here in 6 months.

A coyote was caught with its head stuck in a jar in February. A deer was found in July. Now the fox this month.

Gregg Grimm works at Gold Country Wildlife Rescue, which has helped in each animal’s rescue and recovery.

In Grimm’s six years here he had never seen a single case like this. Now suddenly, this spike.

“The fact that people are seeing it is also interesting because a lot of times when this happens the animals goes off and hides and people won’t necessarily see them and so they die,” Grimm said.

Grimm attributes the trouble in part to more people living near Placer County wildlife, and more people not carefully discarding waste. But why the sudden spike? He isn’t sure.

“I don’t know what triggered it, to be honest,” Grimm said. “I really don’t know what triggered it.”

The fox most recently rescued is being treated for starvation and infections.

Gold Country Wildlife Rescue is hoping it will be healthy enough to release back into the wild in a few weeks.