Citizen Solidarity at Both Ends of a Proposed U.S. “Fukushima Freeway”
Californians learn that the two industries which most threaten human survival are facing off in New Mexico’s ‘Nuclear Alley.’
By James Heddle – EON – June 7, 2018
Target: ‘Nuclear Alley,’ New Mexico
Recently – un-reported in the scandal/crisis-pre-occupied American main stream media – New Mexico has become the epicenter of an on-going national controversy: how to responsibly manage the tons of radioactive waste accumulated at all the nuclear energy reactors around the country so far in the Nuclear Age.
Why, New Mexicans and others around the country are asking, has this region suddenly become the potential target destination for all of America’s radioactive waste?
New Mexico cattle rancher Ed Hughs is one of the many around that state and the country who think so.
Hughs told a recent Roswell, New Mexico NRC meeting to rousing applause, that together with his neighbors he had just successfully fought off a proposed deep bore hole nuclear waste depository next to his ranch in Quey County, NM.
“There are a lot of questions that have not been answered. One of the questions, how do you retrieve if there are accidents? How do you monitor? How do you repair? Those questions have not been answered. So I guess in summing up I want to say that the Holtec and Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, and I agree with an earlier statement that, you know, you aren’t bad people in the sense that you are trying to do us harm, but you are making a huge mistake…. You are in fact proposing to bring death to New Mexico.”
Yucca Redux and the ‘Fukushima Freeway’
The U.S. Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 promised commercial utilities that the Department of Energy would be responsible for their lethal high level waste beginning in 1998. However due to the failure to find a permanent repository and the as yet unsolved technical problems of safely storing waste lethal for millenia, the government has been unable to deliver on that promise and is liable for lawsuits filed yearly by utilities who charge the government millions of dollars for their annual waste storage costs. In an effort to stop this financial hemmoraging from utility waste storage payments and to give the impression that something is being done to address the issue, HR 3053 was written. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 2018, HR 3053, known as the Shimkus Bill, recently passed the House and is now in the Senate. California Senator Diane Feinstein has long been advocating for an interim ‘solution’ to the nation’s commercial radioactive waste problem and is now sheparding the Shimkus Bill through Senate discussions.
HR 3053 calls for restarting the failed Yucca Mountain Project in Nevada, and establishing a system of Consolidated Interim Storage (CIS) sites for radioactive waste around the country until Yucca is operational. As San Onofre Safety explains, the bill will not solve our radioactive waste management problems and will make the problems much worse.
First on the list of possible ‘temporary’ CIS nuke dumps is a site proposed by Holtec International and the local Eddy-Lea Alliance just outside Hobbs, New Mexico. It’s just over the border from Andrews, Co., Texas – where another high level nuke waste dump is also being proposed by Waste Control Specialists, which already operates a controversial toxic materials dump in the area.
In early may, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a series of five so-called ‘scoping’ meeting around New Mexico to take public comments on the Holtec/Eddy-Lea site proposal.
Proponents of the dump tout it as a regional economic boon and a patriotic service to the nation.
Opponents see it as a public health, environmental and economic disaster waiting to happen that could ruin the region’s thriving dairy ranching, pecan growing and oil drilling industries.
Planned to eventually hold more metric tons of waste than Yucca Mtn. itself will be designed for, the Hobbs site could well become – if the Yucca site never gets built – America’s de facto national dump site, and make the region a national ‘nuclear sacrifice area.’
The region targeted for the proposed ‘interim’ radioactive waste storage sites is already known to the region’s population as ‘nuclear alley.’
Welcome to Nuclear Alley
Nuclear Alley is on the edge of one of the world’s richest and – currently on pace to be – most productive petroleum patches: the Permian Basin, which straddles the New Mexico-Texas border.
We traveled there recently to cover the NRC scoping hearings on the Holtec proposal for our forthcoming documentary series on the shutdown and decommissioning of California’s last remaining nuclear energy plants at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon. We also wanted to express our support for the individuals and groups resisting the ill-conceived consolidated interim storage agenda.
Along with the coming cascade of waste from other scheduled nuclear power reactor shutdowns around the country, California’s radioactive waste could well be headed for New Mexico…if the proposed Holtec and WCS ‘Consolidated Interim Storage’ sites are licensed by the industry-captured NRC.
Oil Patch Central
To get to this region we flew into Midland, Texas. The thriving city is a prime beneficiary of the area’s present oil- and gas-fueled economic boom. As we got off the plane, we entered a bustling airport space dominated by a battery of digital billboards showing glitzy ads – not for consumer goods – but for the region’s thriving, readily available, fracking and oil drilling services and products. Here’s a sampling:
From Midland we headed to Eunice, New Mexico, an epicenter of New Mexico’s Nuclear Alley. To get there, we drove through endlessly flat countryside dotted every few yards stretching to the horizon with temporarily dormant or busily functioning oil pumps.
Rose Gardner is a feisty Hispanic grandmother and co-founder of the Alliance for Environmental Strategies organization in opposition to the Holtec dump.
In keeping with her name, she runs a flower shop on the Main Street of Eunice.
The local landscape of Eunice is dominated by the presence, just five minutes up the highway, of Waste Control Specialists’ toxic waste materials site – where WCS is proposing adding a new CIS ‘parking lot’ nuclear dumpsite.
Just next-door to WCS is the Urenco uranium enrichment facility, which supplies much of the fuel for the country’s nuclear power reactors. [A January, 2018 NRC Inspection Report noted both a security violation and the loss of criticality controls at this Urenco plant. ]
Both proposed sites are about 40 miles from the now infamous Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), where more than 171,000 waste containers are stored in salt caverns 2,100 feet underground.
Touted as the demonstration ‘Flagship’ model for the feasibility of long-term deep geological radioactive storage facilities for nuclear weapons waste, and advertised to last for thousands of years, WIPP experienced underground fires and explosions on February 14, 2014, after only 15 years of operation.
The disaster caused a major radiation release of plutonium and americium that contaminated at least 22 workers. The release was tracked by monitors and acknowledged by DOE as far away as 26 miles.
Reports the LA Times, “the explosion ranks among the costliest nuclear accidents in U.S. history, according to a Times analysis. The long-term cost of the mishap could top $2 billion, an amount roughly in the range of the cleanup after the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.”
But, says the Southwest Research and Information Center’s Dan Hancock, “There is no question the Energy Department has downplayed the significance of the accident.”
Diagnosed as being caused by the use of the use of ‘organic cat litter’ in the storage barrels, the WIPP disaster was dubbed a ‘comedy of errors’ by commentators around the world. Not to worry. Sustaining such huge potential costs (that are charged to the state of New Mexico) WIPP is now again accepting waste – presumably packed with the right brand of inorganic kitty litter.
Guiding us on a tour of the local Eunice roadside attractions, Rose showed us a sprawling, sun-baked trailer park, on land owned by a local politician. The bleak dusty field is home for many of the workers at the town’s two dominant facilities.
If WCS succeeds in getting an NRC license for a CIS site here, the workers’ ranks will expand, and so will the trailer park owner’s profits. That’s one of the ‘economic benefits,’ Rose noted to us wryly, that are loudly touted by the region’s CIS advocates.
“This crap that could kill us!”
Speaking at the NRC’s first regional meeting in Roswell, Gardner told the standing-room-only crowd,
This isn’t the right thing to do. It’s an injustice to this state, to this community….. Most of the people in this area are like me, Brown-skinned or darker. We’re already poor. We don’t have insurance. We speak another language and we’re at least 50 percent here. And that’s an environmental injustice because they’re basically saying it’s okay… because those people aren’t going to speak up, because they can get run over just like they’ve been run over for the last several hundred years.
I’m here to tell Holtec, ‘Hell No, we don’t want it!’ I am so sick and tired of all these big companies coming into New Mexico or close to my town in Eunice, wanting to give us all this crap. This crap that could kill us!
New Mexico as ‘National Sacrifice Area?’
Leona Morgan, a fiery young Diné [Navajo] community organizer and co-founder of New Mexico’s Nuclear Issues Study Group, expands on Rose’s points.
“Starting with uranium mining and milling,” she says, “to modern weapons production, uranium enrichment, and storage of low-level and transuranic wastes, New Mexico has been targeted as a national sacrifice zone for too long,”
“New Mexico is the birthplace of nuclear colonialism,” Morgan points out. “We have been impacted by just about every step in the nuclear fuel chain! We did not generate this waste from nuclear reactors that is intended to come here. So why should we take it? As a state with many indigenous nations and people of color, and being at the tail end of several measures of quality of life, it is environmental racism at its core to keep dumping on New Mexico. And it’s time to stop!”
Speaking to the NRC meeting in Hobbs, New Mexico, Morgan gave a greeting in her native language and went on to remind the group that they were assembling on land originally stolen from the Mescalero Apache and Comanche tribes. “The things I want to talk about,” she said, “have to do with indigenous rights across the nation.“
“How many of you from the NRC or any of the regulating Agencies are aware,” she asked, “of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? Or, for that matter, any of the elected officials here, how many of you know about this document called the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples passed in 2008?”
She scanned the crowd.
“Okay, let the record show no hands going up. How many of you are aware of the Organization of American States’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?“
She glanced around at the blank official faces.
“Okay, again, nobody’s hands went up. This was passed in 2016 and so I’d like to read directly from this Declaration.”
She went on to quote language from the Declarations’ Articles declaring that
Article 19: Indigenous peoples are entitled to be protected against the introduction of abandonment, dispersion, transit, indiscriminate use or deposit of any harmful substance that could negatively affect indigenous communities’ lands, territories, and resources.
Article 22: The indigenous law and legal systems shall be recognized and respected by the national, regional, and international legal systems
“The reason I’m reading this,” she told the meeting, “is because it cites that the Federal Government needs to recognize tribal law.”
“Specifically with my tribe, the Navajo nation, we have a law against the transport of radioactive materials through our lands.
“So, if this transport should occur, it’s directly violating our tribe’s laws that were put in place because of all the history and the health impacts of the horrendous things that the United States did, not just going back to the genocide of our people but more recently, the exploitation of uranium on our lands.
“And so we have a law against uranium mining and we have a law against transport because we’ve already suffered the impacts from these industries for United States imperialism and capitalism. And so that did not benefit our people. We wrote these laws for the protection of our future generations, however, they are not being respected here.”
Based on indigenous historical experience, it would be a pleasant surprise if such legal provisions were ruled to be within the scope of the NRC’s consideration of the Eddy-Lea/Holtec license application for their proposed project.
Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!
The Eddy-Lea Alliance Project’s point man and lead salesman is John Heaton, a former member of the NM state legislature and current Chairman of the Alliance.
The Alliance is a limited liability corporation made up of 8 people appointed by the Councils of Hobbs, Lea, Eddy and Carlsbad counties. According to its promotional material it was “Formed Under the Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) for Economic Development Purposes in 2006 & to Respond to Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) Proposal from DOE.”
Heaton qualifies as what Eric Hoffer called a ‘True Believer’ in his 1951 best seller of that title. Heaton’s energetic sales-pitch is persuasive…at least to the uninformed.
As Heaton tells it, seeing opportunity in a recommendation by Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’ Nuclear Future for creation of ‘consent-based’ Centralized Interim Storage sites around the country, the Alliance believed it had secured what Heaton calls ‘an ideal site.’ It’s located 35 miles outside the town of Hobbs, and about equidistant from the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) outside Carlsbad.
Although ‘consent-based siting’ was recommended by Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission, the DOE has not finalized rules for how a state or community gives or denies consent. Already some cities have forced construction of highway bypasses around their metropolitan jurisdictions.
New Mexico’s ‘High Nuclear IQ’ vs. ‘Fear Mongering’
Heaton describes the proposed Eddy-Lea site as ‘dry’ and ‘seismically stable.’ In addition he says, because of all the existing neighboring facilities in Nuclear Alley, “we have what I call an area of the country with a very high nuclear IQ. The local population understands nuclear materials,” he claims, “and know they can now be handled competently.”
“This is deja vu for us,” an irritated Heaton told the NRC in its Hobbs meeting. “We went through this same thing with WIPP. We went through all the fear mongering. WIPP has shipped more than 12,000 shipments and traveled over 14 million miles. That’s like going to the moon and back 28 times, without a serious accident and absolutely no release.”
However, there are many members of that regional ‘high nuclear IQ population’ Heaton refers to who also remember that – touted as the country’s flagship deep geological nuclear waste repository, designed to remain secure for ten thousand years – WIPP suffered an explosion and release of plutonium in 2014, after a mere 15 years of operation.
An ‘Ideal Site’ for Holtec
Having secured their ‘ideal site,’ the Alliance issued an RFP to potential contractors and chose Holtec. “Because,” Heaton says, “ they are a great company with a fabulous record [and] have the best, safest, most secure system in the world.”
Joy Russell is a Holtec Vice President and nuclear engineer who is proud, she told us, of being both a West Point graduate and a co-designer of the Holtec transport cask modeled by the scaled-down inflatable replica being toured around the state by opponents as the growing Halt Holtec campaign gathers momentum.
She boasts that her company has been in the radioactive waste storage business for over 30 years, and that “sixty per cent of nuclear plants in the U.S. use Holtec dry storage equipment.”
“We have an impeccable safety record,” Russell told an NRC community meeting in Roswell, NM. “None of our equipment has ever experienced a safety issue, ‘leak,’ as you so call it.
But, I would like to point out,” she told the Roswell auditorium – packed 5-1 with opponents of the proposed project – in a tone dripping with ill-concealed condescension, “spent nuclear fuel is not a liquid, it can’t ‘leak’.”
Opponents cite a number of disquieting facts, which call Heaton and Russell’s confident public relations assertions into question.
A group of New Mexico and Texas organizations, including the Nuclear Waste Study Group, the SEEDS Coalition, and Alliance For Environmental Strategies, started a ‘Halt Holtec’ campaign. They toured an inflated, scaled-down model of the kind of transport cask proposed by Holtec that would carry thousands of shipments of highly radioactive waste shipments through the nation’s towns and metropolitan areas on dilapidated highways, bridges and railway lines for the next 20 years or more.
One significant result of their campaign is that on Monday, May 21, the Albuquerque City Council, in a 4-3 vote, approved what it called a ‘memorial’ against the transportation of nuclear waste through the Albuquerque metropolitan area.
Similar measures by other municipalities and counties along the potential shipment routes around the country are in the works. The closest town to the proposed site, Jal, just passed its refusal to allow transport.
Details and additional Cask Tour dates will be posted online at: www.facebook.com/HaltHoltec
The Halt Holtec Campaign has quickly gathered strong momentum surprising both to its organizers, and the Holtec dump proponents, whose claim of ‘wide-spread regional public support’ has been totally debunked by the actual turnout of strong opposition to the project. Public statements have so far run 5-1 ‘against’ the proposed site in all five New Mexico NRC meetings.
“Groundwater, folks, is the life blood of the ranching business. If you don’t have groundwater you’d just own dirt.”
At the recent series of NRC community meetings, this opposition was strong from a wide cross section of New Mexico and Texas demographic sectors, including Native American Tribes, growers, ranchers, the Jewish and Christian faith communities, and the powerful oil and gas fracking industry.
A regional leader of that booming industry is the Fasken Oil and Ranch company, which has been in business since 1913. Their representative, Jimmy Carlisle, explained his company’s position to the visiting NRC officials.
“I work for Fasken Oil and Ranch based in Midland. We are an oil and gas company, but we also are a major landowner in the State of Texas.
We own some 200,000 net acres in the State of Texas. Our largest ranch is a 165,000 acre contiguous ranch just north and west of Midland.
The WCS site definitely comes into play in this discussion. The Holtec side, however, has the same issues … groundwater issues.
On our ranches [we depend on ] everything we look at: we look at vegetation, we look at soil characteristics, we look at moisture in the soil, but the thing we watch the closest is the quantity and the quality of our groundwater.
Our company is the first one really in West Texas that made the determination to get off of use of fresh water in our drilling and fracking operations and we started recycling produced water and using brackish water as a result.
So we believe firmly that the freshwater issue is a major significance that has to be addressed.”
Stressing that the State Engineer’s Office lacks definitive maps of the ground water aquifer locations in New Mexico, Carlisle told the NRC panel, “We’re not alone in this fight.”
Explaining that it had taken ‘less than two hours to get four letters of opposition from major landowners in West Texas, Carlisle concluded,
“Groundwater, folks, is the lifeblood of the ranching business. If you don’t have groundwater you’d just own dirt. Think about that for a second.
The bottom line is we believe that this [Holtec] application and the WCS application need to be withdrawn.”
A group letter from oil industry representatives to Holtec warned that Holtec and the Eddy-Lea Alliance would ‘need more money than God’ to compensate them if their project damaged the thriving drilling industry in the oil- and gas-rich Permian Basin, which is currently on pace to become the world’s most booming region of petroleum production.
“I don’t intend to let this thing run over us.”
Randy Prude, an influential County Commissioner from Midland, Texas, told the Roswell NRC meeting that he had spent $2,000 of his own money to fly Fasken representative Jimmy Carlisle and other opposition speakers to the event.
“I intend to organize all the ranchers and all the commissioner’s courts and everybody in all the governments in all this whole region,” Commissioner Prude went on.
“I will tell you, I am an odd duck, I am a Republican — (laughter) and this is not a Republican or a Democrat issue, this is an important issue to all of us….
“I just cannot tell you the horror that could happen if we ever have an accident. And so I intend to organize all of our governments that are willing to listen.,,,.
“I am going to get to all the ranchers and all the ranch oil men to contact their commissioners and their mayors and their representatives, house representatives, senators, and so forth, and I don’t intend to let this thing run over us.”
The Permeable Permian
The contentions by dump proponents that the Eddy-Lea/Holtec site is ‘dry and seismically stable’ were repeatedly debunked by facts presented by opposing speakers.
Activists visiting the site, despite Heaton’s attempts to stop them, discovered clear signs that it is a playa where seasonal rain water collects, feeding the ground water deposits and aquifer below.
The region’s most famous tourist attraction – the Carlsbad Cavern – was formed by such a subterranean body of water, the Capitan Reef Aquifer.
“It’s hard to think of a worse place to choose for placing an interim waste site,” consulting geologist Dr. Steve Schafersman told the meeting.
“The area is surrounded by aquifers, some close, some far. The sediments and the sedimentary rock are porous and permeable. The thin barrier they claim is on the top is not sufficient. It’s just like the WCS site, which is really no better. So this is not a good place to put a hazardous waste site, especially one for nuclear waste.
“There are soluble rocks below the site, limestone and rock salt. There is karst limestone in the area, which is a soluble limestone that develops caverns, the caverns collapse and sinkholes develop.
“It is conceivable that a sinkhole would collapse and take down the depository with it, which would be a terrible, colossal tragedy. In addition there is the soluble Salado formation below that.
“In West Texas unplugged wells carry fluids to this formation, the salt dissolves, and sinkholes develop. This is a matter of fact.”
An Earth-Shaking Announcement of Seismic Significance
Several of the opposition speakers referred to a recently-published, peer-reviewed study in the March 16, 2018 issue of Nature, with the catchy title, ‘Association between localized geohazards in West Texas and human activities, recognized by Sentinel-1A/B satellite radar imagery.’
The study by Southern Methodist University geophysicists Jin-Woo Kim and Zhong Lu reported literally earth-shaking findings.
It showed that, in the last two and a half years, large sections of the four Texas counties they studied, spanning a 4000-square-mile area, had shown ‘vertical deformation,’ that is, sunk or uplifted as much as 40 centimeters or nearly 16 inches.
“The ground movement we’re seeing is not normal. The ground doesn’t typically do this without some cause,” said co-author Zhong Lu, a recognized global expert in satellite radar imagery research.
“These hazards represent a danger to residents, roads, railroads, levees, dams, and oil and gas pipelines, as well as potential pollution of ground water,” Lu declared.
Co-author Jin-Woo Kim notes that, “This region of Texas has been punctured like a pin cushion with oil wells and injection wells since the 1940s and our findings associate that activity with ground movement.”
In fracking, liquid is injected into bore holes under pressure, then extracted, causing uplift while the wells are in operation, and subsidence when they are abandoned.
The researchers’ Nature article states,
…the rapid subsidence is likely induced by the freshwater impoundments from the nearby abandoned wells. During our field trip, we observed numerous recent ground fissures…. These growing fissures can allow the rainwater to swiftly flow down to the Salado formation and promote the dissolution of the salt layers. [ Thus causing subsidence. ]
Although their analysis focused on just that one 4000-square-mile area, Kim says, “We’re fairly certain that when we look further, and we are, that we’ll find there’s ground movement even beyond that.”
The area they’ve studied so far lies just adjacent to the two proposed storage sites in New Mexico and Texas.
The Oil Drilling and Fracking Connection – Oil & Nuclear Waste Don’t Mix
Evidence of the links between oil and gas extraction and earth movement are clear. Researching an unprecedented swarm of earthquakes in Oklahoma and Texas, a 2016 Stanford University study published in Science found a direct connection between a quake series in Texas in 2012 and 2013, which included the largest on record, and the high volume injection of wastewater into oil and gas fracking wells that happened between 2005 and 2007. The high pressure forced water into fault zones and triggered the subsequent quakes, the study showed. Read more
One of the people Commissioner Randy Prude flew in to speak at the Roswell meeting was Cody Rogers. “I am an ex-Navy nuke,” he told the NRC. “I have operated nuclear reactors for eight years. I am a huge proponent of nuclear power. I think we need it. We have 99 operating nuclear reactors. We do not have anywhere to dispose of the spent fuel. This is a major, major problem and we have to fix it.
“I know we need a site’” Rogers told the group. But the Eddy-Lea/Holtec site, he said emphatically, “is not it.”
“We [the U.S.] are on the cusp of being the world’s largest energy producer, okay. We are going to control oil very soon. We are going to control our own destiny. So West Texas is one of the most valuable places in the world right now, especially in the United States, and, because of this I implore you to look up the study from SMU. West Texas is sinking…fast!
“I know we need a site. This is not it. If this thing sinks and we get something like the WIPP accident, that was never supposed to happen, the environmental impact is forever, and if we lose West Texas oil, natural gas, the people of Roswell, the people of New Mexico, the people of Texas, the United States, we’re done.
” We’re not going back to Saudi Arabia and getting their oil. We need independence and this site is sinking and I truly believe that we need to look at that and study its environmental impact.”
Cody Rogers seemed to be channeling President Trump, in a June 29, 2017 speech. “The truth is we now have near limitless supplies of energy in our country,” Trump said. “We are really in the driving seat, and you know what: we don’t want to let other countries take away our sovereignty, and tell us what to do, and how to do it. That’s not going to happen. With these incredible resources, my administration will seek not only the American energy independence that we’ve been looking for, for so long – but American energy dominance.”
It’s difficult to miss the irony here: the two industries which most threaten human survival are at loggerheads in the Permian Basin.
Reputations and Rap Sheets
Opponents of the twin dump proposals stress that entrusting the economic and environmental future of this area to companies with corporate histories like those of Holtec and Waste Control Specialists is a highly risky proposition.
With aging reactors closing down around the country in an accelerating cascade – and with no ‘national permanent geological repository’ for their accumulated highly irradiated fuel rods in sight – decommissioning and radwaste storage are on pace to become major growth industries for some time to come.
Holtec’s visionary head Dr. Krishna Singh is positioning his huge company, based in Camden, New Jersey, to dominate both industries, as well as to be a leader in the manufacture of small modular reactors (SMRs), the failing nuclear energy industry’s latest bid for survival.
Back in October 2010, based on the results of a criminal investigation of bribery conducted by its Office of Inspector General (OIG), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) debarred Holtec International, Inc. for sixty days and fined it $2 million.
According to a TVA document,
Holtec agreed to pay a $2 million administrative fee and submit to independent monitoring of its operations for one year. The TVA Board’s Audit, Risk, and Regulation Committee and TVA management fully supported the OIG’s recommendation to create a suspension and debarment process and submit Holtec to that process. TVA’s Supply Chain organization and Office of General Counsel worked collaboratively with the OIG to achieve this milestone in TVA history. Why wasn’t the company permanently debarred? A subsequent Department of Justice document seems to suggest that a TVA employee may have been bribed by Holtec to falsify a financial disclosure report. Read more.
Meanwhile, just miles away on the other side of the state border in Texas, Waste Control Specialists (WCS) and its new French partner Orano each have their own checkered pasts.
WCS was founded in 1989 as a landfill company by Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, who controlled it until his death in 2013. During that time, Simmons used his financial muscle and political connections to morph the site into a licensed low level waste dump with some highly questionable maneuvers.
His generous support for then Texas Governor, now Energy Secretary Rick Perry, no doubt eased his path. Critics allege that “Radioactive Rick” Perry appointees at key regulatory agencies bent rules on WCS’s behalf. Allegations include the Texas Water Development Board’s altering of maps that formerly showed that Simmons’ waste facility is located over part of the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies and supplies drinking and agricultural water for eight western major bread basket states. Another water body, the Dockum Aquifer lies nearby as well. Many Texas environmental officials resigned in protest.
For its part, WCS’s new partner Orano, parent company of Orano USA, is a recent reincarnation of the radically reorganized French government-owned struggling reactor maker AREVA, after years of business losses brought it to the brink of bankruptcy.
These are the strange bedfellows hoping to profit from the nuclear energy industry’s decline by making New Mexico’s ‘nuclear alley’ America’s de facto radioactive waste repository for the foreseeable future.
There are several things wrong with this scenario, not the least of which, as noted, is that poor and minority residents make up a large portion of the population in and around ‘Nuclear Alley.’
Until and unless the existing Nuclear Waste Policy Act is changed by currently proposed, but not yet enacted legislation, licensing of these CIS sites will be illegal. This is because the Act requires that a permanent repository is approved before any consolidated interim storage site can be licensed.
If the NRC were to license the sites without a permanent repository being established, they would likely become in effect the permanent national dump, because utilities would probably stop lobbying for – and lawmakers could be less inclined to authorize funding for – establishing a permanent central repository.
If that happens, thousands of shipments of deadly radioactive waste will be moving daily along rail and truck transportation corridors, through our nation’s population centers, for decades to come.
A Shell Game of Nuclear Russian Roulette on Wheels
Critics of the proposed ‘interim storage’ plan stress the incredible mulitiplication of risks of attempting to move this unstable lethal waste twice – once across the country to interim and then again to permanent storage.
Eddy-Lea/Holtec project proponents are fond of citing the transport record claimed by the Navy, which proudly states that it has been shipping both new and used nuclear fuel cross-country by rail for over 60 years without mishap.
The Navy admits that, “All shipments [are] classified (security) and invoke the Department of Transportation (DOT) National Security Exemption (49CFR173.7b).” It claims that 850 spent fuel containers have been safely shipped from March, 1957 to the present.
However, no radioactive labels and placards are ever used in these boxcar and flatcar shipments, and there is no advance notification given to authorities along the route, so reports of any incidents that may have occurred would also be classified – secret for ‘security reasons.’ Since radioactive gases and waves are invisible, it’s likely that the public would never know even if there had been leaks.
Those 850 shipments over 6 decades are far fewer than the estimated 17,000 shipments it would take to move the projected 173,000 metric tons of radioactive SNF from US nuclear plants to the Eddy-Lea/Holtec site across the entire lower 48 states in the coming years.
Government documents show that other details of Navy shipping methods make them significantly different than those anticipated for the Shimkus Bill’s proposed nation-wide rail, highway and barge transport network:
· Transport has been along only one specific rail route;
· The Navy uses a different containment system than the Holtec transport cask;
· Each Navy transport cask holds just 1/10th of what is planned for each Holtec spent fuel canister.
Itemizing Nuclear Transport Risks
Kevin Kamps from the Washington DC-based group Beyond Nuclear traveled to New Mexico to show his organization’s solidarity with the Halt Holtec movement and to share knowledge gained from a professional life spent campaigning for nuclear safety.
His hand-out list of the documented high risks involved in transporting highly radioactive irradiated nuclear fuel, whether by train, truck, or barge, on rails, roads, or waterways included “high-speed crashes into immovable objects, like bridge abutments, or high-temperature long-duration fires, or long-duration underwater submergence.”
“Intentional attacks,” he warned, “such as by anti-tank missiles or shaped charges, could also breach shipping containers and release their contents into the environment.”
Since Holtec has claimed in its license application that any and all NRC certified canisters can be accommodated at this facility, Kamps explained, not only rail-sized shipping containers must be worried about, but also legal weight limits for the truck casks which would travel on interstate highways throughout the country.
“X-Ray Machines that can’t be Turned Off”
Contrary to Holtec VP Joy Russell’s reassurance that, since spent fuel shipments aren’t liquid, “they can’t leak,” all shipments would emit dangerous gamma and neutron radiation for several yards in every direction, dissipating with distance. Because of the large expense and added weight necessary to provide shielding against these gamma and neutron emissions, the NRC has set ‘allowable’ limits.
“But,” Kamps reminded the meeting, “Allowable does not mean safe. Any exposure to ionizing radioactivity carries a health risk, and these risks accumulate over a lifetime.”
According to NRC guidelines, at six feet away from the container’s exterior surface, a dose rate of 10 millirem per hour is allowed – about one to two chest x-rays’ worth per hour.
At the exterior surface of the container, the allowable dose rate increases dramatically to 200 millirem per hour. That’s 20 to 40 chest x-rays’ worth.
But workers, such as truck drivers, locomotive engineers, inspectors, security guards, and the like, who come in very close physical proximity into the shipping container would be exposed to the highest radiation dose rates.
Even innocent passersby and bystanders in the general public would also be exposed, including those who live close to transport routes exposed to large numbers of shipments going by over time.
Some people, Kamps noted, such as pregnant women, should not be exposed to any radiation dose that can be avoided due to the high risk of harm caused to the fetus in the womb.
He reported that the state of Nevada, based on federal government data, has documented 49 incidents of accidental surface contamination on these highly radioactive waste shipments between the years of 1949 and 1996.
And in France, Areva Corporation has had many hundreds of externally contaminated shipments, a full one-quarter to one-third of all shipments bound for the La Hague reprocessing facility. On average, these French contamination incidents emitted 500 times the allowable radiation dose rates. One even emitted 3,300 times the allowable dose rate.
De Facto National Dump in Disguise?
But, perhaps the greatest danger to be considered by New Mexicans, Kamps, warned, is the “question of temporary versus permanent.”
This is the danger, Kemps says, of so-called centralized or consolidated interim storage facilities becoming actually de facto permanent surface storage parking lot dumps.
Holtec-ELEA have applied for a permit to NRC to store irradiated nuclear fuel here for 40 years. But this time period could, as they admit, be extended to 120 years.
But, Kamps’ research shows that, on page 12 of a January 27th, 2017 report that Holtec prepared and submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Andrew Griffith over company Vice President Joy Russell’s signature, Holtec’s response to the DOE request for proposal on centralized interim storage, stated that “the CIS should have a minimum service life of 300 years.”
“How can 40 years be called temporary, let alone 300?” Kemps asked the gathering. “That’s longer than the United States has been a country.”
“So, just to end with some political reality,” he said, “If this waste comes out here, it would turn out to be one New Mexico member of the United States House of Representatives versus 434 others for it to ever move again. And in the U.S. Senate it would be a vote of 98 against 2.”
“So,” Kemps concluded, “folks had better think about this deeply before it’s allowed to come out here.”
‘Chernobyl in a Can’
Expanding on the theme of transportation risks, EON producer, Mary Beth Brangan pointed out that “Every one of these canisters that would be coming would contain roughly as much cesium alone, as was released in the Chernobyl accident. Every canister.
“And so just keeping that in mind,” she continued, “I was looking at just three years from 2013 to 2016 of oil train accidents which might give us an idea about how heavy loads fare on our nation’s railways.
“In 2013, there were 11,636 accidents, 8740 injuries, and 700 fatalities. In 2014, 12,226 accidents, 8788 injuries, and 765 fatalities. In 2015, 11,814 accidents, 9087 injuries, 749 fatalities. And, in 2016. 10,927 accidents, 8050 injuries, and 805 fatalities.
“And those were trains carrying oil, not Chernobyl in a can.
“My partner and I are here,” Brangan told the meeting, “because we’re very, very concerned about this. And I want to assure you there are other Californians who do not want to send their radioactive waste here.
“We don’t want to do that for a great many reasons but the first one is its environmental racism, and we really object to the concept of putting any more of the burden of the nation’s radioactivity on your communities,” she said to appreciative applause.
We were not the only concerned Californians who came to the NRC’s New Mexico scoping meetings to say, “We don’t want our radioactive waste dumped on you.”
Another was Southern California urban planner and community organizer Torgen Johnson, whose efforts helped shut down San Onofre’s reactors. He flew in to the Albuquerque meeting to show support for the Halt Holtec Campaign and network with regional organizers.
“The New Mexico people hammered Holtec and the NRC,” he reported. “They didn’t need our help, but they welcomed our solidarity. It was so great and encouraging to hear these well-informed, passionate and articulate people expressing the same concerns we have at the other end of the potential rail line.”
Johnson says he heard testimonies from down-winders of the 1945 Trinity test with long, tragic family histories of cancer and health impacts. Being among them, he says, deepened his understanding of the human rights, social justice and environmental issues at stake, and his commitment to continued public education about them.
What impressed him, he says, is the realization of the “Link between the low income, red and brown people in New Mexico and wealthy white people in Southern California – both being victimized by the plans and decisions of Holtec and the NRC.”
“Its a representative cross-section of America” he says, “united against the onslaught of the nuclear waste disposal industry.”
Sharon and Ace Hoffman, whose efforts had also contributed to the shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear plant, attended several of the meetings to share their experience and voice their solidarity with the Halt Holtec movement.
“We are very happy that San Onofre is closed,” Sharon Hoffman said. “It is a really bad place for the waste. But that doesn’t mean that we solve the problem by moving it to a different place. We have to look at the transportation. We are talking about moving the most dangerous stuff on the planet all over the country. And if we moved it all today, we would have more tomorrow.
“So the real question here is, when are we going to shut down all these plants and stop making more waste? That’s really the problem.
“This is a beautiful place, “ she concluded. “And it might be contaminated forever. This is not something that you want to take on for the rest of the country. Yes, you can help the rest of the country. You can say, stop making this, and then let’s figure out together the best thing to do with what is left.”
“I am a stakeholder,” Ace Hoffman told the assembly. “I am from Carlsbad. Not Carlsbad, New Mexico; Carlsbad, California, which is about 15 miles as the crow flies, or the plutonium flies, from San Onofre. So it was very important to me that we do something about this waste.”
Based on his experience of the NRC’s actions during the controversy about shutting down San Onofre, Hoffman warned his New Mexico counerparts, “don’t expect anyone to be telling you the truth about what is possible or what is going to happen. And I strongly advise — even though I would love to get rid of the waste, and I would love to find a sucker that will take it — don’t be that sucker.”
From the Mouths of Babes…
But it was the little daughter of artist and prominent Halt Holtec campaigner Noel Marquez who perhaps best summarized New Mexico’s majority view that emerged from the 5 meetings held around the state on the Elea-Holtec proposed dump site.
When the moderator, Chip Cameron offered to hold the mike for her, she responded, “I can hold it myself. Thank you.”
Handling the mike with confident ease, she continued, “My name is Pakeia Marquez and I am 11 years old. I’m here on behalf of unborn kids and born kids like me. I think this whole situation is very important because it affects everything and everybody. It affects the plants and wildlife around here.
“I have recently been writing an essay about ecosystems. I read that ecosystems can be very easily poisoned through water, air, and soil. Water, if all this radiation leaks into the water, everything that’s living needs water. It’s going to suck up all of that, and it’s going to get poisoned. Who is going to, like, you know, reimburse us for it?
“You may think you might be solving a problem, but really you’re just creating more problems to solve, and they might just be forever, and you might just not be able to solve them.
“Please remember that I cannot vote,” she told the NRC officials. “So please do vote against this horrible mistake. Thank you.”
The applause was loud and long as Pakeia Marquez made her way back to her seat.
James Heddle is a filmmaker and writer who co-directs EON – the Ecological Options Network with Mary Beth Brangan. Their forthcoming documentary SHUTDOWN: The California-Fukushima Connection is now in post-production. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org