New Mexico Wants All Your Hot Nuclear Waste

Alex Jacobs

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez recently cut a deal with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to pay for infrastructure, mostly new and upgraded roads, with a $73.25 million settlement for fines levied by the New Mexico Environmental Department against Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for causing the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) radiation leak in February 2014.

RELATED: DOE Will Fund $73 Million in Infrastructure for NM Radiation Leak Redress

This was not the terrible backroom political deal that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie forced on his citizens when he reduced an $8.9 billion possible fine against Exxon Mobil for environmental damage of wetlands to $225 million. This was two Republican governors doing what’s good for them politically rather than good for their citizens and the environment.

But Martinez’s deal will pay for badly needed roads and other improvements at a time when the state’s revenues from oil and gas are down. A lot of the roadwork will happen in southern New Mexico, Martinez’s political power base. She is building up the south so the Republicans can build up a constituency to match the Democratic stronghold up north. New Mexico Democrats just elected Debra Haaland to lead the party, the first Native American woman to hold that position in the state. Her job is to basically resurrect that party, which has dominated state politics for generations.

Martinez is building up the south, and the oil and gas industry is upgrading its own Infrastructure even though revenues are down because everyone expects a return of higher oil and gas prices; and there will be new homes, businesses, schools, jobs and voters who will vote to keep these jobs. Something that has recently surfaced is the idea that New Mexico will expand its role in the nuclear power industry by providing more permanent repositories for the nation’s high-level nuclear waste in the form of spent fuel rods.

New Mexicans wonder how the state can bring in more dangerous nuclear waste after what happened at WIPP, which was low-level waste. Many critics think the entire state should have a say in this nuclear business, but the southern business forces are being encouraged by Martinez to go ahead with their plans.

This was revealed to the rest of state after Martinez wrote to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on April 10, implying that the whole state more or less backs the idea. Martinez is backing the Eddy-Lea County Energy Alliance’s (ELEA) proposal to build a site that will bring in the spent fuel rods from around the country’s nuclear facilities to this new “interim nuclear waste storage site.” Not far across the border in southwestern Texas is the alliance’s main competitor, a site in Andrews that has been taking in most of the nuke waste designated for the now shutdown WIPP facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The WIPP facility is not far, and the projected ELEA site is located on a lot of nothing halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs, New Mexico, according to an April 25 report in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Areva Inc. is a federal contractor owned by the French government that was working with ELEA until just before the WIPP shutdown, and they had plans to apply for a federal license for a spent-fuel storage facility in 2015. But that never happened, and just a couple of months later the WIPP leak occurred, so in quick order Areva went to dustier, lonelier pastures in Andrews, Texas, to partner with Waste Control Specialists, since that’s where the nuke waste and the money was now going.

There are actually two sites in that part of Texas considering the high level nuke waste repository, both run by Waste Control Specialists—one at Andrews and another 80 miles away, in the least populated area of the nation, Loving County.

Areva was also a major contractor at the Savannah River, South Carolina, nuclear facility, which was poised to take over the Yucca Mountain, Nevada mission to store high-level nuclear waste. When cost overruns hit $8 billion and counting, the Savannah River Site was scrapped, leaving an unfinished, empty concrete hulk. Areva had been paid by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration to supervise the construction of the new, billion-dollar facility to convert excess weapons plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for use in civilian nuclear power reactors. The Aiken, South Carolina, site was bad from the beginning. But the WIPP radiation leak has changed things, and Areva is now in southwest Texas partnering with Waste Control Specialists to propose a site that would take in low-level and high-level nuclear waste, with the potential to build a facility that could recycle the waste.

Areva provided a less potent MOX fuel to the Fukushima Daiichi Reactor in Japan that suffered a hydrogen explosion after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Areva is a major player in the world of nuclear energy, renewable energy, new-generation reactors and uranium mining. They took over the nuclear portfolio from the German company Siemens after Germany decided to get out of the nuclear industry by 2020. They supplied a new generation of reactors to China at Guangdong, have been the target of terrorist attacks, tried to supply Libya with a new nuclear reactor in 2007 and have been accused of poisoning the environment of indigenous people in Africa. This is all normal for a big player in the nuclear business.

The Santa Fe New Mexican has been following the WIPP and LANL incidents from the beginning and reports that ELEA found a partner in Holtec International, the company that makes the dry-cask containers that are being proposed to house the used fuel assemblies. ELEA and Holtec say these casks can be transported by rail instead of on trucks. But critics from the Southwest Information and Research Center say that both Holtec and Areva have been criticized in government reports involving nuclear projects. Dan Hancock, a nuclear watchdog with SWIRC, has stated over several media outlets, that tons of “the hottest, most radioactive” materials will be transported to southeastern New Mexico from the 99 nuclear facilities around the country; that there really is “no interim” when it comes to nuclear waste and that once a site meets all the federal criteria and starts to receive waste, there’s little likelihood of stopping since there are no other sites until the WIPP situation is resolved, and that Utah and Nevada have both basically rejected any sites in their states since the Yucca Mountain site proposal died.

Without a push from New Mexico the Texas sites probably have the edge, but now we have dueling sites for expanding the nuclear industry in the Southwest, once called “America’s National Sacrifice Area.” It could take up to $60 million and three years to go through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process. Areva and Andrews will also apply to begin undergoing the same licensing process, and their long-range goal appears to be a facility to recycle the spent fuel rods into MOX as is done in France, India, Japan, Russia, China and other countries. ELEA proponents say they are willing to take it on and make their own economy. They say they are taking all the risks and should make the decisions.

It now appears likely that SE NM or SW TX (or both) will be getting an opportunity to get even “hotter” nuke waste and perhaps set the stage for recycling weapons grade plutonium at a permanent nuclear facility, with tons of high-level nuke waste inside state-of-the art containers onboard railway cars coming mainly from the East Coast. Should it be approved, this will occur just a few miles from the Mexican border, so just imagine the border security along that corridor.

It’s conceivable that New Mexico could get a new high-level nuke waste storage facility, like a mega-WIPP, and Texas get the mega-project to recycle the fuel rods with Areva, which would generate constant nuclear traffic between the sites. This would produce new-generation nuclear energy and revitalize the industry in this country, just as countries are getting out. And that does not take into account the plutonium pit manufacturing at LANL that the feds want to ramp up to replace the nation’s aging nuclear weapons stock. The conservative estimate for that project is $355 billion by 2023. But critics say it will reach $1 trillion over 30 years, and that doesn’t include cleanup of legacy nuke waste, health programs for workers and money to upgrade LANL and other facilities because studies show they are at risk should there be any more, politely put, accidents and mistakes.

RELATED: Radiation Leak Linked to Los Alamos; Do We Really Want Biological Agents There?

All this in the name of money, jobs, politics and national security. How can communities, Native and non-Native, stop such projects from developing, using up precious water, polluting the environment, presenting security risks that rationalize ever greater government intrusion? But now The New York Times in its May 9 edition reported that France will restructure its entire nuclear power industry, which will include redefining Areva’s role. New plants are behind schedule, with cost overruns and new safety issues that could seriously delay further construction. Areva has also been losing billions of dollars every year as the Fukishima disaster undermines support for nuclear energy worldwide.

RELATED: New Mexico, Same Old Story: Radiation Leaks and a ‘Manhattan’ Project

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Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet living in Santa Fe.

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