US-based Holtec International has announced that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has issued the final environmental impact statement (EIS) for its proposed HI-STORE consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) for used nuclear fuel in Southeastern New Mexico.

The 736-page final EIS includes the NRC staff’s recommendation that there are no environmental impacts that would preclude NRC from issuing a licence for environmental reasons. The recommendation is based on a 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. The NRC review included land use, transportation, geology and soils, surface and groundwater, ecological resources such as threatened and endangered species, noise, historical and cultural resources, public and occupational health, environmental justice, socioeconomics, and other considerations.

The final EIS also confirms that there are no adverse impacts to other enterprises in the area including oil and gas, ranching, and farming. Designed with safety and environmental stewardship as the overriding considerations, the completely welded and hermetically closed canisters that will be safely stored at the facility are designed, qualified, and tested to maintain their integrity and prevent the release of radioactive material under the most adverse accident scenarios postulated by NRC regulations for both storage and transportation.

Holtec International and its partner, the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA) of New Mexico, launched the initiative to establish the autonomous CISF in Southeastern New Mexico on a parcel of land owned by ELEA in 2015. ELEA selected Holtec and its underground HI-STORM UMAX fuel storage system after determining it to be the safest technology for their community. Holtec says the HI-STORM UMAX underground storage system “provides an unconditionally safe and secure, non-permanent, readily retrievable, and centralised facility for interim storage of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste until such time that a permanent solution is available”.

“We believe that aggregating used fuel from 75 dispersed sites across the country is both a national security imperative and an essential predicate for the rise of renascent nuclear energy to meet our Nation’s clean energy goals,” said Holtec CEO Dr Kris Singh.

The initial application for the HI-STORE CISF includes storage of up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium in commercial used nuclear fuel (500 canisters) with future amendments for up to a total of 10,000 storage canisters. The USA currently has more than 80,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel in storage and the inventory increases by 2,000 metric-tons a year. HI-STORE CISF is being licensed using Holtec’s own funds with the support from communities in Southeastern New Mexico incorporated as ELEA.

The HI-STORM UMAX system is already in use at two sites in the USA. It stores stainless-steel canisters containing used fuel or high-level waste entirely below-ground establishing a “security-friendly” storage facility, providing a clear, unobstructed view of the entire CISF from any location. The HI-STORM UMAX is physically sized to store all canisters currently licensed for storage of used nuclear fuel in the USA and all nuclear fuel types currently in use. John Heaton, ELEA Vice Chairman said the project “will diversify our economy, generate 350 jobs and potentially be a $3 billion investment in our area”.

NRC said Holtec proposes initially to store 500 canisters holding approximately 8,680 metric tons of used fuel in a first phase and eventually to store up to 10,000 canisters in an additional 19 phases. The canisters would be transported by rail from operating, decommissioning, and decommissioned commercial US NPPs.

NRC published a draft EIS for public comment in March 2020 and the public comment period was extended to six months because of the COVID pandemic. During that time, the NRC staff held six online public meetings to present the draft EIS and receive public comments.

More than 4,800 comment submissions with 3,718 individual comments were received and addressed in the final EIS.

“Publication of the final EIS completes the environmental portion of the NRC’s licensing review,” NRC said. “The staff will make a licensing decision following completion of its safety evaluation report, expected in January 2023.

Image: Vision of the proposed HI-STORE consolidated interim storage facility for used nuclear fuel showing how casks would be stored below ground (photo courtesy of Holtec)