Nukes, Jobs and Money

April 30th, 2015 · 2 Comments · environment, journalism, role of government

By Denise Tessier

Interim site for nuke fuel proposed for southern NM” –the top Page 1 story in this morning’s Albuquerque Journal – informed readers that an international company is proposing to turn 32 acres in southeastern New Mexico (about 12 miles from WIPP, the already-existing permanent nuclear defense waste disposal facility) into a site for high-level commercial nuclear waste.

Such a facility, with a proposed 100-year service life, does not yet exist in the United States.

It’s a big story, but the Journal’s account of it failed to include some pretty interesting information about the project, information that appeared five days earlier in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

One has to go to Patrick Malone’s story in the New Mexican – “New Mexico leaders push for high-level nuclear waste” – to read this:

The state took a crucial step this month toward accepting such waste, which other Western states have shunned, when Gov. Susana Martinez quietly signaled to the Obama administration that New Mexico would welcome it.

. . .backers of the plan have waged a largely silent, high-dollar campaign to influence decision-makers at the state and federal levels to support the idea.

Since 2012, the city of Carlsbad has spent about $260,000 on lobbyists to try to persuade members of Congress to consider the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance’s parcel as a waste storage site, according to analysis of lobbyist records by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The New Mexican also reported a little background on the international company proposing to build the plant – Holtec International Inc. – which didn’t appear in the Journal story.

According to the New Mexican, Holtec was “stripped” of its status as an approved government contractor “over a bribery scandal that led to felony charges and criminal conviction of a (Tennessee Valley Authority) nuclear plant manager who authorized cask purchases from Holtec. A Holtec spokeswoman declined to discuss the situation.”

The governor’s support of the project did appear in the Journal story, but none of the rest did.

Actually, the Journal published on April 26 an Associated Press report of the governor’s letter of support – but the story was just a few lines long, was posted only online and it quoted the Malone’s story, which had run in the New Mexican the day before.

The contrast between the New Mexican’s enterprise piece – Malone had obtained a copy of Martinez’s letter – and the Journal’s reportage is quite striking.

Malone wrote his story in advance of what a news release had said would be a “nationally significant” new partnership announcement, to be made this week at a joint news conference between the Eddy-Lea County Energy Alliance (an alliance of the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, plus Lea and Eddy Counties) and Holtec International.

The Journal apparently waited for the news conference, and its story reflects that, with all the necessary components of a classic business piece. The Journal reader is told that Holtec signed a memorandum of agreement with the Eddy-Lea County Energy Alliance as the first step in getting federal licenses necessary for construction of the facility.

We learn that the company would “invest” $80 million in the licensing process and $200 million in building the first phase. We learn that the facility would be “big enough to house about 6 percent of all the canisters in the U.S. that now hold spent nuclear fuel at power plants nationwide,” and that the facility would grow to eventually equal what had once been proposed for the now-defunct Yucca Mountain project in Nevada.

Then, we get to the jobs and money.

“Depending on volume, the investment in New Mexico could grow to more than $1 billion,” the Journal quoted a Holtec official, with a couple hundred people employed during construction, about 50 permanent employees in the first phased and up to 150 “as the storage facility expands.”

Readers don’t get any “downside” information until the story jumps to A2, and then it’s that “the licensing and permitting process could take time, given that it would be the nation’s first interim depository for spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors.”

That time estimate is three years for licensing, once an application is prepared.

Thirteen paragraphs in we learn that the project also would need state permits to operate, and it is here we learn that Gov. Martinez “has already taken a position in support of the storage facility.” The governor sent a letter to U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz April 10.

The governor’s two-page letter, posted by the New Mexican, informed the Energy Secretary of the communities’ support and said the governor recognizes a “significant and growing national need” for such a facility. She added that she is aware that not all communities would welcome such a project, but that New Mexico would. She even got a little technical, writing:

Dry cask storage is a proven, passive and safe system that has been used since 1984 with no adverse incidents.

Interesting information, considering that in August 2009 the governor sent an email to an aide, asking: “What is podash? Or ashpod? WIPP?”

As Mother Jones magazine explained in April 2014 in reporting that email: “Potash mining is a multibillion-dollar business in New Mexico, and WIPP refers to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nuclear waste storage site for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which has been a topic of statewide controversy for decades.”

Martinez hadn’t been governor long when she sent that email, but she had worked several years in neighboring Doña Ana County as a prosecutor. (And obviously, that was years before she would be forced to further acquaint herself with WIPP when radiation leaked at the facility in February 2014.)

Martinez’ letter concluded:

I support the ELEA. . .in their effort to support a consolidated interim storage facility in southeastern New Mexico that will be regulated by the high safety and technical standards of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In its 25-paragraph story, the Journal offered three obligatory paragraphs addressing possible opposition to the proposed project, beginning with:

Environmental groups are likely to oppose the storage site, especially after a radiation leak last year from drums stored at WIPP, which has temporarily shut the facility down.

The story quoted Janet Greenwald of Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping as saying, “New Mexicans have opposed high-level waste coming into the state over and over again. I don’t think getting consensus on this will be an easy task.”

That was followed by more from the news conference: nine paragraphs in which local boosters and Holtec praised the company’s “casket technology” and southeastern New Mexico’s “excellent” dry climate, terrain and low water table.

“We have a 35-year safety record of dry canister storage in the U.S. without a single significant incident,” Holtec Chief Nuclear Officer Pierre Oneid said. (Perhaps Holtec is where Martinez got her information in writing the letter to DOE.)

In fact, Holtec President and CEO Kris Singh said the facility would have no environmental impact. From the Journal:

“It has no interaction with the environment – zero,” he said. “There is no pollution of water and no emissions into the environment. It’s absolutely environmentally benign.”

The New Mexican solicited comment for its story from Don Hancock, who has raised questions about the safety of nuclear waste disposal systems since the run-up to WIPP’s construction in the 1970s. From the New Mexican article:

Hancock rattled off a long list of reasons he thinks the plan is a bad idea. Most nuclear power plants are thousands of miles away, meaning the nation’s most volatile waste would need to travel across the country to come here, posing threats along the way. Comparable plans have been batted down not only in other states, but in New Mexico. Hancock said it’s disingenuous to characterize the proposed storage site in New Mexico as an interim way station for spent fuel on its way to a permanent resting place.

With the demise of plans to construct a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the U.S. is without a final destination for spent fuel, so Hancock worries that any interim storage options would in fact become the final stop. (emphasis added)

“This is the hottest, most radioactive material in the United States,” Hancock said. “Permanent disposal doesn’t exist. So the so-called plan for ‘interim’ storage is a charade. It’s not truthful. Nobody can seriously believe that. There is no ability to send it someplace else, because there is no someplace else.”

Keep in mind that this week’s announcement for an “interim” storage facility is new and in addition news reports that the Department of Energy is being asked to consider having weapons-grade plutonium sent to WIPP.

The Journal on Sunday reprinted a story by Sarah Motatt of the Carlsbad Current-Argus, which said the department is expected to release a study soon about the costs of a “federal mixed oxide nuclear program,” or MOX – intended to convert plutonium from surplus nuclear weapons into commercial nuclear fuel. But the Union of Concerned Scientists and the International Panel on Fissile Material both want the DOE to cancel that program, and if cancelled that weapons-grade plutonium would likely end up at WIPP.

When New Mexico agreed to host the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, it was on the condition that the facility would never accept commercial waste. WIPP is also prohibited from accepting highly concentrated forms of plutonium.

As Matott’s story points out, a law would have to be changed at the federal level for WIPP to accept the higher-grade plutonium, but putting the waste at WIPP would be cheaper than converting it to commercial nuclear fuel.

The Union of Concerned Scientists sees this expansion of WIPP’s scope as a good thing, with a spokesman saying, “The people in Carlsbad might not complain, for it is a way to keep jobs there for longer than expected. New Mexico would continue its mission of getting rid of plutonium, not making it into more bombs.”

New Mexico has a “mission” of getting rid of plutonium?

Apparently that’s the impression the rest of the nation is getting at this point. It’s not hard to figure out why.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Bill Tiwald

    The governor was so happy when Gary King was nominated by the Democrats in 2014. She has ruined education in this state and now she continues her assault on the environment. The Urinal continues to be her mouthpiece.

  • Zogbert

    So what I get out of this is that the Journal attempted to get both sides of the story (pro and anti interim storage), while the New Mexican ONLY printed the opposition and an assortment of unrelated “gotcha” facts. Biased coverage that only supports your own opinion is not better coverage.

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