Retired Los Alamos National Laboratory chemist Cheryl Rofer was the moderator for a nuclear waste forum in Santa Fe Wednesday evening. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Rep. Christine Chandler responds to a question Wednesday evening at the nuclear waste forum in Santa Fe. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Democratic Party of Los Alamos Chair Cat Ozment, left, chats with Rep. Christine Chandler following Wednesday’s nuclear waste forum in Santa Fe. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Participating in a panel on nucelar waste in New Mexico Wednesday in Santa were, from left, Don Hancock, Sally Rodgers, Rep. Christine Chandler and State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Multiple concerns were raised by panel members Wednesday evening during a forum on nuclear waste in the state of New Mexico hosted by the Santa Fe Democratic Party Platform and Resolutions Committee at the Center for Progress and Justice in Santa Fe.
Panelists were Rep. Christine Chandler, State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard, Don Hancock and Sally Rodgers.
Moderator for the event was Cheryl Rofer, a chemist who retired in 2001 from Los Alamos National Laboratory following a 35-year career in which she worked on projects dealing with environmental cleanup at Los Alamos and in Estonia and Kazakhstan; disassembly and decommissioning of nuclear weapons; and chemical weapons destruction.
Rofer gave an overviews of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) near Carlsbad and the proposed Holtec high-level interim disposal site near Eunice. She said WIPP has been operating since 1999 with a hiatus from 2014 through 2016 forced by a burst drum improperly packed at Los Alamos. She said WIPP receives transuranic waste from nuclear weapons production operations.
“Transuranic means waste contaminated with waste beyond uranium on the periodic chart, mainly plutonium, neptunium and americium. Such waste includes gloves, tools, clothing or soil that have been contaminated. The waste currently being sent to WIPP is not considered high-level waste,” she said. “WIPP receives waste from Los Alamos, Hanford, Savannah River, Oak Ridge and Idaho National Laboratory. Recently shipments have increased because WIPP is the only operational nuclear waste repository in the entire country and holders of other types of waste are looking at it as a destination.”
Rofer said wastes in Hanford storage tanks, weapons grade plutonium that the U.S. agreed with Russia to dispose of, even non-radioactive mercury have been mentioned for disposal at WIPP and that the facility is approaching its capacity under current regulations.
Hofer said the proposed Holtec facility would receive spent fuel elements from commercial nuclear reactors that would be packaged in concrete containers for temporary storage until a permanent storage area can be developed or the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada opens.
“Yucca Mountain was intended for permanent storage of spent fuel but Nevada rejected that use. Thus far the spent fuel has stayed at the sites of reactors. There are 98 operating reactors in the United States supplying about 20 percent of all our electrical power. Storage space at these sites is being filled consequently the Department of Energy wants the fuel elements removed to a temporary location, one of which Holtec proposes to build in New Mexico,” Hofer said.
Representative Chandler said during the forum that her concerns at WIPP would be with the permitting issues involved with the proposed reclassification of waste by the Department of Energy and that there would be potential for delaying shipments from Los Alamos or other sites.
She also said the thinks it’s interesting that what’s happening is that work arounds are being created so that the problems the agencies have been unable to solve are being solved by things like redefinitions. Chandler, who recently toured the WIPP project and visited the area of the proposed Holtec site said the type of storage proposed at Holtec is being used currently at civilian sites and that it is generally preferred to leaving the high-level waste in ponds. She said the Union of Concerned Scientists endorses encasing the steel canisters in concrete and placing them in the ground as opposed to each reactor site having a large quantity of waste that causes security and safety concerns.
“We are working counter to our interest for long-term storage. We need the political will to do what we need to do to ensure safety in this country. I don’t think this is the answer. It’s a stopgap that could lead to a de facto permanent storage site and I think that’s a legitimate concern,” Chandler said.
She said the high-level waste storage is a very important issue and not necessarily a done deal, adding that Yucca Mountain was thought to be a done deal.
Land Commissioner Garcia Richard said her office has direct oversight of mineral leasing at the proposed Holtec site. She made public a letter she sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expressing her concerns about representations made by Holtec to the NRC and New Mexicans about its control of the proposed site as well as agreements it claims to have secured from the state Land Office. She said while the Eddy-Leah County Energy Alliance LLC privately owns the surface of the proposed site, the State Land Office owns the mineral estate and that has not been disclosed by Holtec.
Contrary to Holtec’s assurances that any future oil drilling or fracking would occur at depths of greater than 5,000 feet, State Land Office’s analysis demonstrates the existence of numerous active oil and gas wells within a three-mile radius at depths of 5,000 feet or less.
Garcia Richards’ letter discusses a February 19 meeting with Holtec to overview the company’s plans and says a number of serious questions she and her staff made at that meeting remain unanswered. She said Holtec has not responded to concerns about the effects the proposed activity will have on oil and gas lessees as well as present or future fracking activitities. Also she said her office has asked Holtec to identify a worst case scenario for an event at the proposed site and information on how Holtec would respond but that they haven’t had a “meaningful” response to this enquiry and admission that makes the Land Office believe Holtec has not sufficiently analyzed the risks posed by its planned operations.
It Holtec moves forward, Garcia Richard said the nuclear waste would remain in southeast New Mexico until 2048 and possibly much longer because there is no designated permanent repository anywhere in the nation for high-level nuclear waste.