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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Two rural New Mexico counties announced Wednesday they're partnering with an international firm in the race to build an interim storage facility to house spent nuclear fuel that has been piling up at reactors around the nation.
Officials from Lea and Eddy counties and Holtec International gathered at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque to outline their plans.
John Heaton, a former state lawmaker and chairman of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a consortium of city and county governments, said there's no better place in the U.S. than southeastern New Mexico to build such a facility since the region is already home to a multibillion-dollar uranium enrichment plant and the federal government's only underground nuclear waste repository.
Heaton acknowledged that in vetting the project, safety was the top priority.
The region is still rebounding from the indefinite closure of the government's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where a chemical reaction inside a drum of waste resulted in a radiation release in February 2014. The U.S. Department of Energy has said it will take years and more than a half-billion dollars before the repository resumes full operations.
The proposed storage facility would be designed to handle spent nuclear fuel from power plants, not the kind of defense-related waste that was shipped to WIPP.
Holtec CEO and President Kris Singh said his company has spent more than a decade developing technology to ensure the safe storage of spent fuel inside triple-lined stainless steel casks that are capable of enduring the force of a freight train collision or an earthquake.
"We became convinced that this is an extraordinary, safe process that needs to occur in this country," Heaton said.
Federal officials acknowledged that the future of nuclear energy in the U.S. depends on the ability to manage and dispose of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.
In March, the DOE announced it would begin siting interim storage sites as part of its plan to spur the use of nuclear power and develop the transportation and storage infrastructure needed to manage the waste.
Some members of Congress have shown renewed interested in the mothballed Yucca Mountain project in Nevada.
In West Texas, Waste Control Specialists announced plans earlier this year to build a temporary storage facility that would eventually be capable of holding up to 40,000 metric tons.
Yucca Mountain was designed with a cap of 70,000 metric tons. The proposed facility in southeastern New Mexico would hold even more.
The agreement between Holtec and the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance addresses the design, licensing, construction and operation of an underground storage site on 32 acres between the communities of Carlsbad and Hobbs.
Holtec officials say the company expects to apply for a permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission within a year. State permits would also be required. Licensing could take three years.
"It's a tough road to get any nuclear project off the ground, otherwise we would have repositories and interim storage facilities all over the country," Heaton said. "We have great partners and the will to get it done."
Gov. Susana Martinez weighed in earlier this month. She sent a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz as a preliminary endorsement of the proposal.
Watchdogs have raised concerns, pointing to transportation issues and the possibility that New Mexico could become a permanent repository for such waste. Supporters said Wednesday they would have to work with communities along the transportation routes, just as they did when setting up the network for shipping waste to WIPP.
Holtec officials were reluctant to put a price tag on the venture, but Heaton said it could involve anywhere from $200 million to $400 million in capital costs.
The revenue the storage facility could bring in for the counties and the state would ultimately depend on how big of a share of the market Holtec could attract, Singh said.
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