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"Forget the Rest" blog

August 2, 2017

An open letter to:

Hon. Senator Tom Udall
Hon. Senator Martin Heinrich
Hon. Congressman Ben Ray Lujan
Hon. Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham

Dear colleagues --

In rather a rush, we published this Bulletin this past weekend, which was subsequently edited for clarity: Bulletin 233: Please take action: Congress, White House, nuclear industry renew effort to store, process, and dispose of various nuclear wastes in New Mexico and Nevada.

That Bulletin is linked to a little technical background, for example an original study by a two-time Department of Energy (DOE) gold medal winner (the highest awards given by the DOE) Robert Alvarez ("Spent Power Reactor Fuel: Pre-Disposal Issues," Apr 29, 2017).

I am sure Mr. Alvarez would be happy to talk to you about those issues, as would we.

What we are asking from each of you are clear public statements saying:

  • You will oppose any legislation that authorizes licensing any consolidated interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and high-level waste (HLW) before at least one final disposal site is licensed and open. We believe that further silence on your part will be taken by many parties, including the nuclear industry and the citizens of New Mexico, as at least qualified assent for such a site in New Mexico.
  • You will strongly oppose H.R. 3053 in any form, the Rep. Shimkus-sponsored "Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments of 2017," which means you oppose any legislation allowing taxpayers to take title to commercial SNF outside the fencelines of operating final disposal sites (the present, 1982, law). It also means you oppose re-starting the licensing process for Yucca Mountain.
  • You will oppose any effort to license one or more Western final disposal sites without also and contemporaneously licensing one or more Eastern disposal sites of comparable size. The battle Sen. Morris Udall fought for regional equity in disposal sites must not be forgotten, not for the sake of an abstract principle but for the sake of current power plant licensing and subsidy decisions. Failing to include SNF disposal and pre-disposal costs and risks in current decisions is bad economics, bad regulation, and bad politics.
  • You will oppose any consolidated interim storage facility for commercial SNF in any state which has not approved and operated commercial nuclear power plants.
  • You will support a suite of measures to require better pre-disposal management of SNF, including (as an example, and certainly not limited to) thinning SNF pools back toward their original design capacities. Our advisors can work with you on legislation requiring better management practices. 

What we don't want is for each of you to merely "monitor the situation." We want you to stand up and be counted now, which would save mountains of time and trouble for you, your successors, and the whole state later.

We noticed and appreciate Rep. Ben Ray Lujan's vote in committee against H.R. 3053.

What prompts this letter and the above Bulletin is that we are very concerned, first of all, that the Senate Energy and Water Development (SEWD) appropriations bill, which has been reported out of full committee with Sen. Udall's blessing, requires the Secretary of Energy to issue a request for proposals to open a nuclear waste storage site for DOE-owned SNF and HLW within 120 days of enactment provided certain conditions are met.

Tying a mandate for one or more near-term SNF and HLW consolidated interim storage sites to annual DOE funding is something I do not recall seeing before.

As far as I know there is only one active application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a license for SNF storage, and that is Holtec's, at the ELEA (Eddy Lea Energy Alliance) site a few miles north of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) site. The Waste Control Specialists (WCS) bid for their site in Andrews, TX (just across the NM line) is in limbo due to imminent or actual bankruptcy.

The fact that the SEWD bill references DOE-owned and DOE-contractor waste, and the Holtec application may be (or may not be -- I have not read it) for commercial SNF only, is in many ways a distinction without a difference. The first objective of the Holtec-ELEA exercise is to license the site for any such waste. Even if a deal were worked out that protected the Holtec site from defense (or, contrariwise, from commercial) SNF, a second site could be opened in the same area without that constraint, once the local political barriers were broken down. Most of the environmental context and analysis would be the same for wastes of either provenance, as would many of the design and operational details.

The NRC has asked for more data from Holtec. While we can be, and are, happy about that as a delay, complacency is inappropriate. It is difficult to overstate the importance to the industry of unloading (onto taxpayers) the vast liability posed by spent nuclear fuel. We believe the pressure from the industry to "do something" can only increase. This is an industry in trouble.

Unlike most environmental groups, we think it advisable to license, as soon as prudently and safely possible, not just one but at least two disposal sites for SNF and vitrified HLW, at least one in the East and at least one in the West.

Yucca Mountain appears completely untenable from a technical perspective. Then there is the non-trivial matter of massive local political opposition in Nevada, which should be respected.

Hidden deep within the decisions -- federal, state, local, and corporate -- that have supported and still support and subsidize nuclear power plants all over the country, is the assumption that the resulting waste will go somewhere else, somewhere far away, somewhere in the desert, somewhere where there are no people or at least no people important to us. This assumption -- that there is a place of desert, a deserted place, free of environmental and public health consequences from human action -- is coming to the surface, politically speaking, and we can only expect it to become more obvious over time.

Ideally, from perspectives of equity, justice, and environmental microeconomics, and setting geological questions aside for the moment, SNF should never leave the states which officially and legally chose to generate this waste and which (ostensibly) benefited from its generation. We understand there will need to be exceptions, but a glance at a map of where all this SNF was and is still being generated is instructive.

Our Bulletin is just a snapshot of these complex issues, which have multiple moving and static parts. It is a complicated story that began decades ago, rich with layered complexity. But to quote W. C. Fields, while the nuclear industry is no longer in a position to "dazzle [anybody] with brilliance," none of us can afford to be "baffle[d]...by bullshit" either. 

The danger is both acute and chronic. New Mexico has a bulls-eye on it both ways.

Our state, with its severe economic and social problems and its demographic fragility, would never recover from being branded as "the nuclear waste state." At present, "the Land of Entombment" is just a joke -- sort of. 

We think this is an issue where you can each stand up and be counted -- and the sooner the better.

We are grateful for your attention. There are further details in Bulletin 233.

Greg Mello, for the Los Alamos Study Group


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