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New Mexico Nuclear Waste Dispute

image credit: ID 52311829 © Joe Sohm |

  • Nuclear power generates about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and represents more than half of its carbon-free sources, said John Wagner, who oversees the nuclear science and technology directorate at Idaho National Laboratory.  
  • About 80,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel generated by commercial reactors is stored around the nation, according to the US Government Accountability Office. 
  • A typical nuclear power plant in a year generates 20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel. The nuclear industry generates a total of about 2,000 - 2,300 metric tons of used fuel per year. 

With those numbers constantly growing, the need for a nuclear waste management plan is vital.  Industry officials say the path forward needs to include both interim storage options and plans for permanent disposal.  The current administration has moved to restart the licensing process for Yucca Mountain despite concerns in Nevada.  Private companies have also applied for licenses to open temporary storage facilities in New Mexico and West Texas. Holtec International submitted an application for a license to construct an interim high-level radioactive waste storage facility that could hold up to 120,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods on a 1,000-acre property owned by Eddy Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA) near the border of Eddy and Lea counties in New Mexico.  Proposals like that face opposition from high-ranking Democrats in New Mexico, oil and gas developers in the Permian Basin, ranchers and environmentalists.  US Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat, said her state wants a voice in the process and that the legislation needs to be updated to allow for states to weigh in on whether they’re willing to accept any waste.  After the Holtec application, congresswoman Deb Haaland announced her opposition to storing high-level nuclear waste in New Mexico in a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

High-level radioactive waste is the byproduct of energy generated inside nuclear power plants and currently, there are over 60 dry cask storage sites across 34 states.  Plans to reclassify some of the country's radioactive waste to lesser threat levels is angering environmental groups and raising questions among experts.  Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has already expressed her opposition to the DOE’s plans calling it an unacceptable risk.  Many feel most people in the area are not well informed on the proposed nuclear waste site, its operations or the level of safety proposed for the site. Holtec’s plans to transport waste by rail has also raised several concerns.  Despite the ongoing dispute, Eddy County is supporting the nuclear waste site near Carlsbad.


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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 30, 2019

Nevelyn, some nuclear waste should be reclassified - in fact, most of it should be reclassified.

The most dangerous isotopes in high-level nuclear waste decay the fastest. After seven years spent in pools of water at the plant, spent fuel assemblies are moved to dry cask storage. There, or in underground waste repositories, they will continue to cool off for several hundred years until the radiation they emit is lower than that of the soil you walk upon every day. 100% harmless.

Just like in soil, there are tiny amounts of isotopes which will remain radioactive for thousands of years. The half-life of plutonium-239, for example, is 23,000 years. Plutonium-239 is safe enough to hold in your hands.

If fear factories like "Greenpeace" and fossil fuel front groups like "Natural Resources Defense Council" and "Environmental Defense Fund" want to argue with fundamental physics to help increase their revenue or donation base, who cares? They can go to h***.

"Many feel most people in the area are not well informed on the proposed nuclear waste site, its operations or the level of safety proposed for the site."

No doubt. Most people in the area, or the world for that matter, are not well informed about nuclear waste. That's why I and other activists spend a lot of time talking to people, enlightening some, angering others. Nearly all of those angered by the truth about nuclear waste, in some shape or form, profit from the sales of fossil fuels or renewables: natural gas, solar panels, or wind turbines. And as Upton Sinclair once famously said: 

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 1, 2019

My favorite comparison for demonstrating levels of radiation that are demonstrably 'elevated' but not dangerous is looking at the natural levels of radiation in elevated areas, such as Denver, where people get higher 'doses' thanks to higher elevation and some natural characteristics of the land there. When the level of radiation in places like Fukushima have now dropped to Denver levels, that leftover radiation from those disaster sites cannot be used to show the dangers of nuclear power lest you also start a campaign to move people out of the Rockey Mountains:

When NPR science reporter Richard Harris compared Denver's normal background radiation levels to the improving situation around Japan's earthquake-damaged nuclear power plants, we wanted to find out more.  Radiation levels are falling in northeastern Japan, and as Harris reported, "it appears it won't be long before the levels are equivalent to those in Denver."  It turns out that Denver and much of Colorado has background radiation higher than in many other places. Partly it's the altitude. There's less atmosphere shielding Colorado from cosmic rays.  And the ground is rich in uranium, which gives off radioactive radon gas.  Colorado's background radiation is higher, but not dangerous, says Dr. Jeff King, who teaches nuclear engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.  He speaks with Colorado Public Radio's Mike Lamp.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 1, 2019

You're impressing me, Matt. Below is a graph I use for a PowerPoint presentation showing a timeline of environmental radioactivity left over from the Fukushima accident. As you can see, the background level in Fukushima City fell below that of Denver, CO months after the accident.

The radiation to which travelers on commercial jets are exposed varies somewhat, depending on altitude. Below, a reading on my Geiger counter shows for several hours, on a flight from Detroit to L.A., I was exposed to 2.94 µSv/hr - more than the maximum to which Fukushima residents were exposed after the accident. Astonishingly, none of the flight attendants were wearing protective gear.

This isn't to trivialize the danger of excessive exposure to radiation. Increased incidence of cancers among pilots and flight attendants has been well-documented, exposure to high doses of gamma and x-rays over time can be deadly, and areas near the plant in Japan are still deemed too dangerous to re-occupy.

The point is to put things in perspective. The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami were the strongest in Japan in 1,600 years, striking a 50-year old plant built far below U.S. standards. But reporting that, or that U.S. reactors generate more than half of U.S. carbon-free electricity, doesn't draw a lot of page views - so media outlets resort to sensationalism:

"A new radiation reading taken deep inside Japan's damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor No. 2 shows levels reaching a maximum of 530 sieverts per hour, a number experts have called 'unimaginable'".

That no expert would call a level of radiation "unimaginable" is irrelevant - it's not even true. Radiation inside the core of a nuclear reactor is very imaginable - the question is whether we should be basing energy policy on imagination, or fact.

Nevelyn Black's picture

Thank Nevelyn for the Post!

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