Two N.M. sites considered to test nuclear waste disposal system

Chris Ramirez
April 10, 2017 10:27 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- New Mexico and the nuclear industry have a long and often romanticized relationship, but an idea proposed by the U.S. Department of Energy is being met with a reaction as explosive as the atomic bomb itself.


The Energy Department is looking for new ways to store high-level nuclear waste, stuff like spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors. One idea is to bury the radioactive trash deep in the earth.

The DOE doesn't know if that idea will work.  So for the next 10 years, the department wants to test the idea of deep drilling and dropping canisters into those holes.

The department first wanted to drill in Rugby, North Dakota, and Spink County, South Dakota, but people there said no. Now the feds are looking at four new sites.

  • Haakon County, South Dakota.
  • Fort Stockton, Texas
  • Otero County, New Mexico
  • Nara Visa in Quay County, New Mexico

Nara Visa is a rural community. Ranching and farming are the main sources of employment.

"We don't need that," resident Phylis Poling said. "We don't need that here."

A group opposed to the drilling has been meeting in and around Quay County for weeks. Their goal is to show the department of energy that their community will not consent to the drilling.

On the surface, the hole wouldn't be all the big. It's the width of a piece of paper -- 8.5 inches. The real controversy is how deep that hole will actually go under the surface -- 16,000 feet deep.  That's the equivalent of three miles under the surface down.

Thousands of canisters would stack one on top of another in the hole. If all goes well, another borehole would be drilled nearby for more testing.

And that second borehole would be a little bigger -- 17 inches in diameter or about the size of two pieces of paper.

The DOE contracted the company Enercon to explore the Nara Visa site. Enercon has promised the site would only be used for testing. Spokesman Chip Cameron spoke to 4 Investigates from Washington, D.C.

"There will not be any nuclear waste at the site," he said.

But what if worst case scenario happened? What if something were to go wrong? How much liability does the DOE or Enercon take if a disaster were to happen?

"I'm going to take the term 'disaster' with a little grain of salt because if you were talking about there actually being radioactive waste on site, then any miscarriage of that could be expensive," Cameron said. "But the types of things that could go wrong, of drilling the borehole would be something that might happen to the groundwater, and we're pretty positive there won't be any negative impact on the Ogalala Aquifer from this project."

The possibility of disrupting the aquifer under Quay County has been of great concern to the opposition group. The water gives life to the people, the animals and the crops there.

"My kids -- I have three little babies," resident Cydni Wyatt said. "I'm a fourth-generation rancher from the site where they want to do this project.  I want my kids to have a future here."

it became clear at those meetings that, despite the promise that the test site will not become a nuclear waste storage site, there is a lot of distrust.

"I think that it is always a possibility that they could use this site for nuclear waste," Tucumcari Mayor Pro Tem Robert Lunkin said. "If that does happen, just the possibility will put a cloud over our area."

Cameron argues the drilling could pump millions into the Quay County economy by filling hotels and restaurants, and also hiring locals to work on site.

Despite their promise and New Mexico's long affair with the nuclear industry, this opposing group isn't convinced that the benefits outweigh the potential long-term risks.

The Department of Energy has stated it will select one out of the four sites by the end of the year. While some GOP state lawmakers have publicly stated they are in favor of the borehole, Gov. Susana Martinez said she is aware of the project but still has many questions about it.


Chris Ramirez

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