For most New Mexico businesses, the arrival of COVID-19 wreaked havoc, caused shutdowns or threatened doom. But for one enterprise — potentially one of the world’s largest nuclear waste sites — the pandemic offered an unusual opportunity.
A long-planned nuclear waste storage facility in the southeastern New Mexico desert was rushed through the approval process during the pandemic, according to New Mexico’s congressional delegation, environmentalists and other opponents.
Typically, project foes would have been able to voice their disapproval at Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearings around the state. The coronavirus brought an end to such public gatherings, however, so New Mexico lawmakers asked the NRC to pause the hearings.
Instead, the agency switched to online meetings — and shut out dissenters in the process.
“There is a large population of individuals living in New Mexico without internet or phone access” — and the virtual hearings required both, said environmental activist Leona Morgan of the Nuclear Issues Study Group. A Diné woman who protests what she calls nuclear colonialism, Morgan said that many people couldn’t join the meetings because they didn’t have robust broadband connections, a common problem in tribal areas and remote parts of New Mexico.
Morgan counts herself among the lucky: She managed to join one of the virtual webinars in August. “There’s no reason to rush through this process except to line the pockets of for-profit companies and their shareholders,” she told the NRC.
The process in question involves Holtec International, the proposed builder and operator of the Consolidated Interim Storage Facility, a site between Hobbs and Carlsbad that could soon be licensed to store 8,680 metric tons of highly radioactive uranium from some 80 nuclear reactor sites around the country. Holtec, a company that has come under scrutiny for safety violations and other issues, could potentially be allowed to expand the site by nearly 20 fold.
Touted by backers as a local economic boon, the project would transform New Mexico into America’s radioactive waste “destination,” as Holtec describes it. The proposal has met considerable opposition, particularly given its location within the oil-rich Permian Basin.
Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has categorically denounced the Holtec project and all other proposals to store nuclear waste in the area. “Allowing the interim storage of spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste at sites near the largest producing oilfield in the world will compromise the safety of the region,” Abbott wrote in a September letter to former President Trump.
Democratic Congresswoman Deb Haaland, the Secretary of the Interior nominee, opposes the Holtec plan for health, safety and economic reasons. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, more than a dozen state legislators and the Democrats in New Mexico’s congressional delegation are against it. The Navajo Nation, the All Pueblo Council of Governors and numerous local governments — representing nearly half the population of New Mexico — also object, citing potential risks to families, communities, agriculture, industry and the environment, now and forever. Some of the waste can remain radioactive for more than 1 million years.
If the NRC grants an operating license to Holtec, New Mexico will become a permanent nuclear dumping ground, opponents say.
“We are talking about storing over 120,000 metric tons of nuclear waste in an extremely active oil field without a clear picture of the potential hazards,” project foe Stephanie Garcia Richard, New Mexico’s land commissioner, stated in a letter to Holtec. Garcia Richard noted the potential for radioactive contamination at the storage site and along the highways and rail lines carrying spent fuel rods from 35 states. “There is no guarantee that high-level nuclear waste can be safely transported to and through New Mexico,” she wrote.
U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, for their part, decried the switch to online hearings and asked for a pause in the licensing process. “There is no compelling public interest reason to justify this rush to replace meetings with virtual webinars,” they told the NRC in an August 18 letter.
On September 15, after the last virtual hearing was concluded, the agency officially responded to the senators, declining their request.
On Sept. 22, when the public comment period on the NRC’s draft environmental impact statement closed, the commission recommended green-lighting the Holtec facility.
New Jersey-based Holtec plans to build the New Mexico storage site on 1,040 acres of scrubland located halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs. The two cities, along with Eddy and Lea counties, partnered with Holtec to build the project. All four municipalities would receive a share of Holtec’s revenues for storing the country’s dangerous detritus.
If Holtec wins its NRC license — which could happen as soon as this summer — the company would be allowed to store 500 canisters at the site, buried some 30 feet underground. As many as 10,000 canisters could eventually be added during a series of expansions. Holtec and its supporters say the site would be state-of-the-art, safe and secure.
“Because of the real estate and the seismic location, it is the best geologic site and the best environmental site in the country for the interim storage of these spent fuel rods,” Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb told Searchlight New Mexico.
The facility is intended as a temporary storage place, supporters add. In 40 years, the United States will presumably have built a permanent nuclear waste repository, and the spent fuel in New Mexico will be shipped to its new home. If a permanent spot hasn’t been found, however, Holtec has the option of tripling the lifespan of the New Mexico site.
To date, no permanent solution has been discovered – and opponents believe it never will be. They say the spent fuel would likely remain in New Mexico forever.
In a statement to Searchlight, Senators Udall and Heinrich echoed the concerns, noting that there are “no plans of ever removing” the waste. “We see no reason,” they said, “to rush a decision that affects generations of New Mexicans during a pandemic on behalf of an international, for-profit corporation.”
Why is New Mexico in this position in the first place? The answer, in two words, is Yucca Mountain.
In 1982, more than two decades after the opening of the first U.S. nuclear power station, nuclear power plants across the country needed increasing amounts of storage space for the thousands of metric tons of waste they were producing — a problem the federal government acknowledged it did not know how to manage. That year, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), obligating the Department of Energy to build a permanent repository for spent fuel, financed by utility customers. The proposed facility would store waste for a minimum of 10,000 years. The federal government set a 1998 deadline to complete the project.
The Reagan administration eventually settled on three potential locations: Hanford, Washington; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain, Nevada, a site important to the Western Shoshone Nation, Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone, Timbisha Shoshone Tribe and others. “There was supposed to be one in the West and one in the East to avoid picking on one state,” former NRC historian J. Samuel Walker said. But Yucca Mountain soon became the sole focus.
Then the 1998 deadline came and went, and nuclear power companies began suing the government for breach of contract. Without a permanent repository, the utilities have been forced to spend large sums to store nuclear fuel near their plants, which means they lose money with each passing year. To date, the federal government has paid about $8 billion to settle the claims.
In 2010, political maneuvering took Yucca Mountain off the table. The project has been in limbo ever since, along with the lingering spent fuel.
“There really is no fixed date on a repository,” said Rod McCullum of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group. In the absence of a permanent storage place, the conversation has turned to interim storage sites that could save companies money until a final destination is established.
Enter Holtec. The company was formed in the 1980s to design spent-fuel storage technology for nuclear plants. By the early 2000s, Holtec had secured contracts to provide specialized dry storage casks for a never-built interim facility on the Skull Valley Goshute reservation in Utah and the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Sequoyah Nuclear and Browns Ferry Nuclear plants. By 2018, Holtec operated branches in seven countries, including Ukraine and Spain.
In 2019, Holtec began acquiring decommissioned nuclear power plants. (Such plants can bring large profits, including whatever decommissioning funds are left over after they’ve been cleaned up.) Holtec purchased New Jersey’s Oyster Creek Generating Station; Massachusetts’ Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station; New York’s Indian Point Energy Center; and Michigan’s Palisades Nuclear Generating Station, as well as spent fuel from the former Big Rock Point Nuclear Power Plant.
But the company’s record was not without concern. Holtec has received an estimated nine violation notices since 2001 for failing to follow NRC quality assurance procedures, including rules meant to ensure that the company’s storage casks — the kind it would be using in New Mexico — consistently met safety standards.
The most recent violation occurred in 2018 when Holtec modified its casks without notifying the NRC, as mandated. The change was only discovered when workers preparing to load a cask at San Onofre Generating Station in California noticed a four-inch pin, meant to hold the fuel basket, loose at the bottom of the cask — an obvious manufacturing flaw. When asked for comment on the incidents, a Holtec spokesman told Searchlight that the company is an industry leader in quality assurance.
Holtec has run into other problems as well. An investigation conducted in 2010 by the Tennessee Valley Authority into suspected overbilling revealed that the company had bribed a TVA employee in order to secure a contract. In 2007, the employee pleaded guilty to concealing more than $54,000 received from Holtec. In the wake of the investigation, the TVA ordered the company to pay a $2 million fine, open its operations to outside monitors and face a largely symbolic 60-day ban from doing federal business — the first debarment in TVA history.
In 2014, Holtec failed to mention that debarment on tax credit application forms. The misrepresentation initially went unnoticed, allowing the company to receive $260 million in tax credits from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA), a story first reported by ProPublica and WNYC.
In 2019, the NJEDA announced it would investigate Holtec’s use of tax credits, prompting the company to sue the agency for withholding money. (The NJEDA declined to answer questions about the investigation’s status, saying it did not comment on matters related to pending litigation.)
Holtec’s use of offshore banking has also come under scrutiny. According to leaked records called the Paradise Papers, Holtec has operated at least one shell corporation in Bermuda between 2005 and 2007. The records, which were obtained by the German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, listed Krishna P. Singh II as an officer: He is the son of Holtec CEO Krishna P. Singh. Several of the CEO’s other family members were also listed as officers, as was Niraj Chaudhary, director of the executive committee for Holtec Asia. An additional offshore company in Bermuda that operated during the same time period, Southampton Technologies Ltd., included nearly identical officers and was listed at the same address.
Holtec did not respond to questions from Searchlight about why the accounts were used and whether the company still keeps bank accounts in tax havens. The leaked records don’t reveal this information, either. But tax havens like Bermuda can allow companies to avoid paying taxes.
“There’s nothing inherently nefarious about [the accounts],” said Jack Blum, a national authority on international tax evasion and money laundering whose anti-corruption work contributed to the establishment of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. However, Blum told Searchlight, Holtec “is a closely held company that has a history of being controlled by its founders, and wherever it goes, it wants to keep its finances as secret as it can and its taxes as low as it can.”
In general, Blum said: “Companies that are dealing in nuclear materials are in a world where there’s very little transparency.”
Holtec did not respond to questions from Searchlight about why the accounts were used and whether the company still keeps bank accounts in tax havens.
In 2017, Holtec submitted its proposal to the NRC to bring nuclear waste to New Mexico. Supporters included local municipalities, which said the facility would create more than 100 jobs. Supporters today also note that the NRC has issued a draft environmental impact statement that concludes the risks to the environment and to local communities is minimal.
The need for a protective facility is vast, supporters say. Radioactive waste from commercial reactors contains deadly byproducts like plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,000 years, or iodine-129, with a half-life of 16 million years. The U.S. commercial nuclear power industry currently produces over four million pounds of spent nuclear fuel each year. More than 183 million pounds of spent fuel — roughly the weight of 600 blue whales — languish at nuclear power plants around the country. The waste is stored in deep pools of water or in concrete and metal casks. All of it is in need of a new home.
From the nuclear industry’s early days, the federal government has known it would have to deal with high-level waste. “But their assumption all along, and what they proclaimed all along throughout the late 40s, 50s and 60s, was that that’s an issue which is down the road,” said Walker, the NRC historian.
Today, the road might lead to New Mexico.
Tovah Strong is pursuing a BFA in writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her previous journalistic work can be found in High Country News.
A former Albuquerque resident, Sammy Feldblum is currently studying geography at UCLA. His writing examines environmental issues in the southern and southwestern United States.