Holtec International has received the final licence from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for construction and operation of a waste storage facility in Lea County, southeast New Mexico. The site will temporarily store nuclear waste from nuclear power plants across the USA.

The HI-STORE Consolidated Interim Storage Facility (CISF) will be built on land provided by the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA), a regional economic development authority. Holtec said this was “the culmination of an eight-year process” for an “inherently safe below-ground storage system called the HI-STORM UMAX”.

According to Holtec, southeastern New Mexico is the ideal location for the CISF, which will be located on a small and isolated portion of a thousand acres of undeveloped ELEA land that is geologically stable, with a dry and arid climate that is ideal for the underground dry fuel storage system. Aggregating the used fuel from all 75 sites at a consolidated facility would make the task of securing them from known and unknown threats much easier, Holtec says, adding that storing the canisters in a canister- friendly climate such as New Mexico’s will remove their vulnerability to salt air corrosion saving the economy hundreds of millions of dollars in averted aging management costs and remedial programmes.

NRC said the licence “authorises the company to receive, possess, transfer and store 500 canisters holding approximately 8,680 metric tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel for 40 years”. Holtec plans to eventually store up to 10,000 canisters in an additional 19 phases. NRC said each expansion phase would require a licence amendment with additional NRC safety and environmental reviews. The used fuel “must be stored in canisters and cask systems certified by the NRC as meeting standards for protection against leakage, radiation dose rates, and criticality under normal and accident conditions”. NRC specified that the canisters are required to be sealed prior to arrival at the facility. “They will be inspected upon arrival and will remain sealed during onsite handling and storage activities.”

Used nuclear fuel will arrive at the CISF by rail in transport casks and using specialty-designed railcars. Three NRC-licenced transportation casks designed by Holtec – HI-STAR 190, HI-STAR 100 and HI-STAR 100MB ¬– may be used to move used nuclear fuel from the reactor sites to the CISF.

Holtec said the HI-STORE facility is the first in the world to deploy a below-ground storage system for consolidated interim storage.

“We thank the nuclear-savvy communities of the Southeast New Mexico region and their visionary leaders who have welcomed us to bring our technologies to create environmentally benign and well-paying jobs, and help diversify the region’s economy thus fostering a stable industrial base,” said Holtec President & CEO, Dr Kris Singh in a statement.

Holtec’s expected contribution to the community includes additional economic development opportunities, such as a state-of-the art manufacturing facility, a technology development cente and a global workforce training centre.

NRC’s review of the licence application included a technical safety and security review, an environmental impact review and adjudication before an Atomic Safety & Licensing Board. A safety evaluation report, documenting the technical review, was issued along with the licence. This followed a final environmental impact statement (EIS) that noted the absence of any environmental impacts that would preclude a licence for HI-STORE. It also confirmed that there are no adverse impacts to other enterprises in the area including oil and gas, potash, ranching, and farming.

NRC’s recommendation was based on its review of Holtec’s licence application; consultation with Federal, State, Tribal and local agencies; input from other stakeholders; independent consultation with the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management; and NRC’s own environmental review.

Alongside Holtec’s CISF, NRC notes that it has previously issued similar licenses for away-from-reactor storage installations. Private Fuel Storage received a license in 2006 although it was never constructed. The NRC also issued a license to Interim Storage Partners LLC in September 2021 for a proposed storage site in Andrews, Texas. ISP has not yet initiated construction.

NRC issued the licence despite a backlash from the state of New Mexico, including the passage of a new law that seeks to block the facility by requiring a federal permanent repository to be in operation before any nuclear waste can be stored.

Program Director for the HI-STORE CISF, US Navy Captain (retired) Ed Mayer stated, “Thanks to the local support, we have persevered for the past eight years to license HI-STORE in spite of variable enthusiasm from the State’s authorities. However local protests continue. In the 2023 legislative session, New Mexico passed Senate Bill 53, which bans state agencies from granting permits, contracts or leases for building a high-level nuclear waste storage facility. This would include New Mexico Department of Transportation and New Mexico Environment permits needed for construction and operations.

The new law also prevents local governments in the region from approving contracts or leases for the facility. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Jeff Steinborn, said in a statement that NRC’s decision to issue the licence illustrates why the new law is so important. “It’s time that our voice be heard and honoured, and that this project be shut down,” he said.

State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard said in a press statement: “Placing a nuclear storage facility in the heart of oil and gas operations is a recipe for ecological disaster and unnecessarily puts New Mexicans at risk.” There are some 2,500 oil, gas or mineral extraction sites operated by 54 different entities within 10 miles of the site where Holtec plans to build the facility.

Senator Martin Heinrich, who serves on the New Mexico Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, said NRC “used ‘interim’ standards to approve indefinite nuclear storage in New Mexico.” He added: “No matter how many times NRC and Holtec use the word ‘interim,’ it doesn’t make it so. And the people left to pay the consequences will be New Mexicans. Until there is a permanent repository for our nation’s spent nuclear fuel, no regulatory commission should be using ‘interim’ standards to approve ‘indefinite’ storage. New Mexicans didn’t sign up for this.”