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writing for godot

The California - New Mexico Nuclear Connection - Pt. 1 of 3

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Written by James Heddle   
Saturday, 02 June 2018 13:37

Citizen Solidarity at Both Ends of a Proposed U.S. “Fukushima Freeway”

By James Heddle - EON

Target: ‘Nuclear Alley,’ New Mexico

In the past few weeks - un-reported in the scandal/crisis-pre-occupied American main stream media - New Mexico has become the epicenter of an on-going  national controversy: how to responsibly manage the tons of radioactive waste accumulated at all the nuclear energy reactors around the country so far in the Nuclear Age.

Why, New Mexicans and others around the country are asking, has this region suddenly become the potential target destination for all of America’s radioactive waste?

Will the Shimkus Bill ‘Bring Death to New Mexico’?

New Mexico cattle rancher Ed Hughs is one of the many around that state and the country who think so.

Having, with his neighbors, just successfully fought off a proposed deep bore hole nuclear waste depository next to his ranch in Quey County, NM, Hughs told a recent Roswell, New Mexico NRC meeting to rousing applause,

“There are a lot of questions that have not been answered. One of the questions, how do you retrieve if there are accidents? How do you monitor? How do you repair? Those questions have not been answered. So I guess in summing up I want to say that the Holtec and Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, and I agree with an earlier statement that, you know, you aren't bad people in the sense that you are trying to do us harm, but you are making a huge mistake…. You are in fact proposing to bring death to New Mexico.”

Yucca Redux and the ‘Fukushima Freeway’

The Congressional trigger to this rising national controversy is the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 2018, HR 3053, known as the Shimkus Bill, which recently passed the House on its way to the Senate.

It calls for restarting the failed Yucca Mountain Project in Nevada, and establishing a system of Consolidated Interim Storage (CIS) sites for radioactive waste around the country until Yucca is operational.

First on the list of possible ‘temporary’ CIS nuke dumps is a site proposed by Holtec International and the local Eddy-Lea Alliance just outside Hobbs, New Mexico. It’s just over the border from Andrews, Co., Texas - where another high level nuke waste dump is also being proposed by Waste Control Specialists, which already operates a controversial toxic materials dump in the area.

In early may, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a series of five so-called ‘scoping’ meeting around New Mexico to take public comments on the Holtec/Eddy-Lea site proposal.

Proponents of the dump tout it as a regional economic boon and a patriotic service to the nation.

Opponents see it as a public health, environmental and economic disaster waiting to happen that could ruin the region’s thriving dairy ranching, pecan growing and oil drilling industries.

Planned to eventually hold more metric tons of waste than Yucca Mtn. itself will be designed for, the Hobbs site could well become - if the Yucca site never gets built - America’s de facto national dump site, and make the region a national ‘nuclear sacrifice area.’

The region targeted for the proposed ‘interim’ radioactive waste storage sites is already known to the region’s population as ‘nuclear alley.’

Welcome to Nuclear Alley

Nuclear Alley is on the edge of one of the world’s richest and - currently on pace to be - most productive petroleum patches: the Permian Basin, which straddles the New Mexico-Texas border.

We traveled there recently for our forthcoming documentary series on the shutdown and decommissioning of California’s last remaining nuclear energy plants at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon.  We also wanted to express our support of the groups resisting the ill-conceived consolidated interim storage agenda.

Along with the coming cascade of waste from other scheduled nuclear power reactor shutdowns around the country, California’s radioactive waste could well be headed for New Mexico…if the proposed Holtec and WCS ‘Consolidated Interim Storage’ sites are licensed by the industry-captured NRC.

Oil Patch Central

To get to this region we flew into Midland, Texas. The thriving city is a prime beneficiary of the area’s present oil- and gas-fueled economic boom.  As we got off the plane, we entered a bustling airport space dominated by a battery of animated electronic screens showing glitzy ads - not for consumer goods - but for the region’s thriving, readily available, fracking and oil drilling services and products.

From Midland we headed to Eunice, New Mexico, an epicenter of New Mexico’s Nuclear Alley. To get there, we drove through endlessly flat countryside dotted every few yards stretching to the horizon with temporarily dormant or busily functioning oil pumps.

Rose Gardner is a feisty Hispanic grandmother and co-founder of the Alliance for Environmental Strategies organization in opposition to the Holtec dump.  In keeping with her name, she runs a flower shop on the Main Street of Eunice.

The little town’s local landscape is dominated by the presence, just five minutes up the highway, of Waste Control Specialists’ toxic waste materials site - where WCS is proposing adding a new CIS ‘parking lot’ nuclear dumpsite.

Just next-door to WCS is the Urenco uranium enrichment facility, which supplies much of the fuel for the country’s nuclear power reactors.  [A January, 2018 NRC Inspection Report noted both a security violation and the loss of criticality controls at this Urenco plant.  ]

Both proposed sites are about 40 miles from the now infamous Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), where more than 171,000 waste containers are stored in salt caverns 2,100 feet underground.

Touted as the demonstration ‘Flagship’ model for the feasibility of long-term deep geological radioactive storage facilities for nuclear weapons waste, and advertised to last for thousands of years, WIPP experienced underground fires and explosions on February 14, 2014, after only 15 years of operation.

The disaster caused a major radiation release of plutonium and americium that contaminated at least 22 workers. The release was tracked by monitors and acknowledged by DOE as far away as 26 miles.

Reports the LA Times “the explosion ranks among the costliest nuclear accidents in U.S. history, according to a Times analysis. The long-term cost of the mishap could top $2 billion, an amount roughly in the range of the cleanup after the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.”

But, says the Southwest Research and Information Center’s Dan Hancock, “There is no question the Energy Department has downplayed the significance of the accident.”

Diagnosed as being caused by the use of the use of ‘organic cat litter’ in the storage barrels, the WIPP disaster was dubbed a ‘comedy of errors’ by commentators around the world.   Not to worry.  Sustaining such huge potential costs (that are charged to the state of New Mexico) WIPP is now again accepting waste - presumably packed with the right brand of inorganic kitty litter.

Cui Bono?

Guiding us on a tour of the local Eunice roadside attractions, Rose showed us a sprawling, sun-baked trailer park, on land owned by a local politician. The bleak dusty field is home for many of the workers at the town’s two dominant facilities.

If WCS succeeds in getting an NRC license for a CIS site here, the workers’ ranks will expand, and so will the trailer park owner’s profits.  That’s one of the ‘economic benefits,’ Rose noted to us wryly, that are loudly touted by the region’s CIS advocates.

“This crap that could kill us!”

Speaking at the NRC’s first regional meeting in Roswell, Gardner told the standing-room-only crowd,

This isn't the right thing to do. It's an injustice to this state, to this community….. Most of the people in this area are like me, Brown-skinned or darker. We're already poor. We don't have insurance.  We speak another language and we're at least 50 percent here.  And that's an environmental injustice because they're basically saying it's okay… because those people aren't going to speak up, because they can get run over just like they've been run over for the last several hundred years.

I'm here to tell Holtec, ‘Hell No, we don't want it!’  I am so sick and tired of all these big companies coming into New Mexico or close to my town in Eunice, wanting to give us all this crap. This crap that could kill us!

New Mexico as ‘National Sacrifice Area?’

Leona Morgan, a fiery young Diné [Navajo] community organizer and co-founder of  New Mexico’s Nuclear Issues Study Group, expands on Rose’s points.

"Starting with uranium mining and milling,” she says, “to modern weapons production, uranium enrichment, and storage of low-level and transuranic wastes, New Mexico has been targeted as a national sacrifice zone for too long,”

"New Mexico is the birthplace of nuclear colonialism,” Morgan points out. “We have been impacted by just about every step in the nuclear fuel chain! We did not generate this waste from nuclear reactors that is intended to come here. So why should we take it? As a state with many indigenous nations and people of color, and being at the tail end of several measures of quality of life, it is environmental racism at its core to keep dumping on New Mexico. And it’s time to stop!"

Speaking to the NRC meeting in Hobbs, New Mexico, Morgan gave a greeting in her native language and went on to remind the group that they were assembling on land originally stolen from the Mescalero Apache and Comanche tribes.  “The things I want to talk about,” she said,  “have to do with indigenous rights across the nation.“

“How many of you from the NRC or any of the regulating Agencies are aware,” she asked, “of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? Or, for that matter, any of the elected officials here, how many of you know about this document called the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples passed in 2008?”

She scanned the crowd.

“Okay, let the record show no hands going up. How many of you are aware of the Organization of American States' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?“

She glanced around at the blank official faces.

“Okay, again, nobody's hands went up. This was passed in 2016 and so I'd like to read directly from this Declaration.”

She went on to quote language from the Declarations’ Articles declaring that

Article 19: Indigenous peoples are entitled to be protected against the introduction of abandonment, dispersion, transit, indiscriminate use or deposit of any harmful substance that could negatively affect indigenous communities' lands, territories, and resources.

And that

Article 22: The indigenous law and legal systems shall be recognized and respected by the national, regional, and international legal systems

“The reason I'm reading this,” she told the meeting, “is because it cites that the Federal Government needs to recognize tribal law.”

“Specifically with my tribe, the Navajo nation, we have a law against the transport of radioactive materials through our lands.

“So, if this transport should occur, it's directly violating our tribe's laws that were put in place because of all the history and the health impacts of the horrendous things that the United States did, not just going back to the genocide of our people but more recently, the exploitation of uranium on our lands.

“And so we have a law against uranium mining and we have a law against transport because we've already suffered the impacts from these industries for United States imperialism and capitalism. And so that did not benefit our people. We wrote these laws for the protection of our future generations, however, they are not being respected here.”

Based on indigenous historical experience, it would be a pleasant surprise if such legal provisions were ruled to be within the scope of the NRC’s consideration of the Eddy-Lea/Holtec license application for their proposed project.

Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!

The Eddy-Lea Alliance Project’s point man and lead salesman is John Heaton, a former member of the NM state legislature and current Chairman of the Alliance.

The Alliance is a limited liability corporation made up of 8 people appointed by the Councils of Hobbs, Lea, Eddy and Carlsbad counties.  According to its promotional material it was “Formed Under the Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) for Economic Development Purposes in 2006 & to Respond to Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) Proposal from DOE.”

Heaton qualifies as what Eric Hoffer called a ‘True Believer’ in his 1951 best seller of that title.  Heaton’s energetic sales-pitch is persuasive…at least to the uninformed.

As Heaton tells it, seeing opportunity in a recommendation by Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’ Nuclear Future for creation of  ‘consent-based’ Centralized Interim Storage sites around the country, the Alliance believed it had secured what Heaton calls ‘an ideal site.’  It’s located 35 miles outside the town of Hobbs, and about equidistant from the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) outside Carlsbad.

Although ‘consent-based siting’ was recommended by Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission, the DOE has not finalized rules for how a state or community gives or denies consent.  Already some cities have forced construction of highway bypasses around their metropolitan jurisdictions.

New Mexico’s ‘High Nuclear IQ’ vs. ‘Fear Mongering’

Heaton describes the proposed Eddy-Lea site as ‘dry’ and ‘seismically stable.’  In addition he says, because of all the existing neighboring facilities in Nuclear Alley, “we have what I call an area of the country with a very high nuclear IQ.  The local population understands nuclear materials,” he claims, “and know they can now be handled competently.”

“This is deja vu for us,” an irritated Heaton told the NRC in its Hobbs meeting. “We went through this same thing with WIPP. We went through all the fear mongering. WIPP has shipped more than 12,000 shipments and traveled over 14 million miles. That's like going to the moon and back 28 times, without a serious accident and absolutely no release.”

However, there are many members of that regional ‘high nuclear IQ population’ Heaton refers to who also remember that - touted as the country’s flagship deep geological nuclear waste repository, designed to remain secure for ten thousand years - WIPP suffered an explosion and release of plutonium in 2014, after a mere15 years of operation.

An ‘Ideal Site’ for Holtec

Having secured their ‘ideal site,’ the Alliance issued an RFP to potential contractors and chose Holtec.  “Because,” Heaton says, “ they are a great company with a fabulous record [and] have the best, safest, most secure system in the world.”

Joy Russell is a Holtec Vice President and nuclear engineer who is proud, she told us, of being both a West Point graduate and a co-designer of the Holtec transport cask modeled by the scaled-down inflatable replica being toured around the state by opponents as the growing Halt Holtec campaign gathers momentum.

She boasts that her company has been in the radioactive waste storage business for over 30 years, and that “sixty per cent of nuclear plants in the U.S. use Holtec dry storage equipment.”

“We have an impeccable safety record,” Russell told an NRC community meeting in Roswell, NM.  “None of our equipment has ever experienced a safety issue, ‘leak,’ as you so call it.

But, I would like to point out,” she told the Roswell auditorium - packed 5-1 with opponents of the proposed project - in a tone dripping with ill-concealed condescension, “spent nuclear fuel is not a liquid, it can’t ‘leak’.”

Opponents cite a number of disquieting facts, which call Heaton and Russell’s confident public relations assertions into question.

To be continued.  Part 2 will look at the public opposition.  Part 3 looks at the transport risks involved.

=============

James Heddle is a filmmaker and writer who co-directs EON – the Ecological Options Network with Mary Beth Brangan.  Their forthcoming documentary SHUTDOWN: The California-Fukushima Connection is now in post-production.  He can be reached at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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