Bill banning nuclear waste storage dies in Legislature. Activist says fight goes on

By: - February 24, 2022 5:24 am

An illustration of what the Holtec nuclear waste storage site would look like, per documents provided by the company to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (Courtesy NRC)

A bill that would have made it illegal to store spent nuclear fuel in New Mexico died in the Legislature this year, but a prominent activist says he’s still confident a proposed facility will never operate here

The company Holtec International submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March 2017 to open a waste storage site in Lea County, in southeastern New Mexico. The company hopes to store spent nuclear fuel and highly radioactive waste. 

The company proposed building a facility that would initially store up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium in 500 canisters. It would eventually seek authorization to store spent nuclear fuel in 10,000 canisters over the next 20 years. Spent nuclear fuel is radioactive material that can no longer carry a chain reaction required for energy production, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The proposal is facing opposition from environmental activists and some in state government. A bill sponsored by Rep. Matthew McQueen (D-Galisteo) and Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) this session would have prohibited any storage or disposal of spent nuclear fuel in the state.

The bill received three committee hearings this legislative session, but did not reach the floor in either chamber and was tabled Feb. 14. Steinborn has introduced similar legislation in past sessions. 

Despite the bill dying, Don Hancock, the nuclear waste program director at the Southwest Research and Information Center, said he’s still confident the Holtec plant won’t operate in New Mexico. 

Lawmakers hope to derail radioactive waste permit

“There are multiple ways of stopping Holtec. This would have been another one,” Hancock said. “It would have sent a variety of good signals. We always knew it was going to be a difficult goal to get passed, in part because Holtec is willing to spend some amount of money to lobby the legislature against it.”

Holtec has hired one lobbyist, Gerges Scott of Agenda Global, according to records from the Secretary of State’s Office. 

Hancock said he still expects Holtec to be unable to open a facility here for several reasons. For one, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has already publicly opposed the site being built here, citing potential environmental damage and adverse effects on other industries in the area, including agriculture and oil and gas production. Even if a state law doesn’t prohibit the storage, state officials could nix this particular project, Hancock said. 

And he said that even if the NRC issues a permit to Holtec, that doesn’t mean the facility will get up and running right away. He pointed to a similar approval given to a similar facility in Utah’s West Desert in 2006 and said federal agency opposition has meant no waste has been stored there, either, despite the approval. 

“Frankly, we don’t think the feds are gonna let it happen,” he said of the New Mexico site. 

Hancock also said he isn’t concerned that a change in political administration will mean Holtec’s plant is welcomed here, noting the prevalence of Republicans in Utah state government who have fought the facility there just as passionately as Democrats.

There are about 120 different power plants that would send waste to the site if Holtec, a Florida-based company, gets the permit in New Mexico, Hancock said.

Most of New Mexico’s federal delegation opposes the Holtec project, including U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall and U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury. While Holtec is seeking only to build an “interim storage” facility for nuclear waste, the three noted in a letter in July that there is not currently a permanent disposal strategy for spent nuclear fuel and high level waste in the Department of Energy.

“This leaves us extremely concerned that ‘interim’ storage sites with initial 40-year leases, like one proposed for Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing in New Mexico, will become the country’s de facto permanent nuclear waste storage facilities.  We cannot accept that result,” the authors wrote to Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

If the bill were passed, the Environment Department would be prohibited from issuing permits for groundwater discharge, liquid waste or a state water quality certification, according to an analysis by the Legislative Finance Committee. The facility could not operate legally in New Mexico without those approvals, according to the New Mexico Environment Department.

However, the federal government has the final say on nuclear safety regulation, according to the analysis.

The NRC is currently going through a review and licensing process, including the creation of an environmental impact statement and soliciting public comment. They’ve already reached some conclusions, saying the waste being transported would expose those nearby to radiation levels within federal requirements, that the ecological resources would experience a “small to moderate” impact and that the nearby economy would see a “moderate” positive impact on tax revenues. 

But New Mexico Environment Department experts have found multiple environmental concerns in Holtec’s proposal that neither the company nor the NRC have addressed, according to Rebecca Roose, deputy secretary of the department, at a recent committee hearing.

Those include inadequate studies of how radioactive the materials are, how water flows in and around the site, the ways people and the environment could be exposed to radiation, and whether the project would increase the frequency of earthquakes in the surrounding Permian Basin, which is the largest oil producing region of the world, Roose said.

Holtec ‘grateful to observe’ bill not pass

Joseph Delmar, Holtec’s senior director of government affairs and communications, told Source New Mexico in a statement that the company was “grateful to observe” that the legislation did not advance this year. He said the company will work with state officials to reach an agreement to let the site operate. 

“We are committed to work with stakeholders and local elected officials to bring this safe and secure storage facility to fruition,” Delmar said. “The project will provide economic benefit to New Mexico while providing our nation a safe, secure, retrievable option for the storage of spent nuclear fuel.”

Delmar noted that the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance, a group of local governments in Southeastern New Mexico, reached out to Holtec in 2013 to take on the project. 

He also said that the NRC and state governments have worked to provide safe and secure nuclear storage already in New Mexico, including with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad and the Urenco nuclear enrichment facility in Eunice. 

 

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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