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A nuclear reactor in Carlsbad? Local leaders call for atomic energy at repository site

Carlsbad, New Mexico

A modular nuclear reactor was the project of choice for local business leaders in Carlsbad as the U.S. Department of Energy worked to decide how 9,000 unused acres at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant site could be repurposed for “clean energy.”

The project was part of the DOE’s “Clean Up to Clean Energy” initiative to use lands sitting vacant at five sites owned by the agency’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) for generating carbon-free power for the local communities. Other sites in the program were the Hanford Site in Washington, Idaho National Laboratory, Nevada National Security Site and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. In total, the DOE said it identified 35,000 acres at the facilities for the work.

On April 19, the DOE issued a request for qualification (RFQ) for WIPP’s part of the project, seeking specifics about companies interested in taking on a clean energy project at the facility, an active nuclear waste repository about 30 miles east of Carlsbad.

The DOE previously issued a request for information (RFI), seeking input from industry, government and community members on how the site could be used, and could next issue a request for proposal from companies that qualify. Proposals could include nuclear energy, wind, solar, hydrogen or energy storage, read a DOE announcement. Responses were due by May 15.

Nuclear reactor a fit for southeast New Mexico?

Co-chair of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force Jack Volpato said the small modular reactor was the ideal choice for Carlsbad. His comments echoed those of other city leaders during a November 2023 public meeting with DOE officials.

Volpato said such a project would bring stable jobs, revenue and energy to southeast New Mexico, aiming to insulate its oil-based economy from future downswings in the commodity market.

“It’s green energy. There’s are jobs associated. It’s a much more reliable source (of energy) than solar,” Volpato said.

He said a hydrogen power project would also work at WIPP as the area is already rife with natural gas compressor stations and pipelines in the oil and gas industry that could be repurposed.

“The infrastructure is already in place. Putting the (hydrogen) hub where you produce the natural gas makes sense,” Volpato said. “The same pipelines that ship natural gas can also ship hydrogen with minor modifications.”

While solar power was the local leaders’ “least desired,” Volpato said, he conceded it could also work at the WIPP site.

Solar or wind are already being heavily developed throughout New Mexico and are easily deployable, argued Don Hancock with the Southwest Research and Information Center. He said small modular reactors are not feasible as no such facility is presently in operation in the U.S. or worldwide, and such a project could take years to come to fruition.

He said the DOE should instead focus on renewables like wind or solar which Hancock said are truly environmentally sound and doable in southeast New Mexico.

“Having commercial nuclear power generated at the WIPP site is totally illegal in my mind,” Hancock said. “Small modular reactors are not feasible. They do not exist in reality. If you are truly interested in clean energy, you could put wind or solar at WIPP in a couple of years.”

Nuclear power projects struggle to get off the ground

He pointed to a project to build small modular reactors at Idaho National Laboratory that was canceled in November 2023 by developer NuScale, a move attributed to soaring costs of the project subsidized by the DOE, read a news release. NuScule’s design was approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2020 and the DOE agreed to host the project at Idaho.

Another company TerraPower, owned by Bill Gates bought land in Kemmerer, Wyoming in August 2023 to build a nuclear power reactor also using DOE funds, but that project was delayed until 2030, read a company news release.

Hancock said both struggling projects in Idaho and Wyoming showed the difficulty of building nuclear power facilities and bringing them online. He said wind and solar power technology was already proven in New Mexico and should be pursued for the WIPP site.

“Wind and solar could generate feasible and environmentally-sound electricity for the people of southeast New Mexico,” Hancock said. “There are solar and wind projects going online already. We know how to do that.”

But Volpato said southeast New Mexico already also knows how to do nuclear. Along with the WIPP site, the URENCO uranium enrichment facility sits in nearby Eunice and local leaders are pushing for a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel near the border between Eddy and Lea counties.

“You start to get a cradle to grave effect,” Volpato said. “It’s all very steady, whereas extractive industries are up and down. This has a nice modulating effect for our local economy.”

Hancock said wind and solar power were embraced by the State of New Mexico, the federal government and the international community. He said southeast New Mexico should do the same.

“Solar is cheaper, and it come online quickly. Even when they’re delayed, they go online years ahead of nuclear power,” Hancock said. “I think it’s sad that business leaders in southeast New Mexico to don’t talk with business leaders in other parts of the state and say we want to do renewables down here too.”

Source: Carlsbad Current Argus