A bill seeking to block a proposed project to store spent nuclear fuel rods in southeast New Mexico advanced toward becoming law Tuesday, after a legislative committee voted 6-1 to recommend it pass.
Sponsored by New Mexico Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-36), Senate Bill 53 would require the state’s consent for any nuclear waste facility to be built in New Mexico, be it spent nuclear fuel or transuranic (TRU) waste that is presently disposed of at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.
Steinborn’s bill was written in response to a 2017 proposal from New Jersey-based Holtec International, which Steinborn opposed, to build a temporary storage facility for spent fuel near the Eddy-Lea County line.
That facility, if completed and used, would see about 100,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods shipped via rail to the facility from nuclear power plants throughout the country, where it would be held until a permanent repository was developed.
Holtec, after being recruited by a consortium of city leaders from the two counties and cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, applied for a federal license for the project from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which issued an environmental analysis finding it would pose minimal risk.
A final decision was expected by the end of the year.
But the project received a series of oppositions from state officials including New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and her cabinet.
Although only the federal government can statutorily regulate nuclear waste, state officials contended they could still deny permits needed to operate the facility, such as for wastewater.
After the meeting of the Senate Conservation Committee where the bill was passed, Steinborn said the time was now for New Mexico to take a stand against a project he said would endanger people living near the site and along the waste’s transportation routes.
He pointed to resolutions of opposition, both passed unanimously by Bernalillo and Doña Ana counties Tuesday as a sign that dissent was mounting.
“Those are the two biggest counties in the state. Opposition is starting to really grow,” Steinborn said in an interview with the Current-Argus. “It’s an important time to speak now or hold your peace. It’s our final moment to choose a different path if we don’t want this in our state.”
Aside from amending the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Act to require state consent for nuclear waste facilities, the SB 53 would also require a final repository be in existence before the waste can be stored in New Mexico, barring officials from issuing permits to such a site until the conditions are met.
The bill would also expand the membership of New Mexico’s Radioactive Waste Consultation Task Force to include the State’s secretary of homeland security and emergency management, commissioner of public lands and secretary of Indian affairs, and require the body meet at least once a year.
If passed, HB 53 would also broaden the duties of the task force to include oversight of private nuclear waste facilities, such as Holtec’s.
During the committee hearing in Santa Fe, company officials and government leaders from Carlsbad lauded the proposal for providing economic diversity in the oil-rich region.
When complete and operating, Holtec estimated the site would mark a $3 billion capital investment in the region, and hundreds of jobs.
Holtec Project Manager Ed Mayer opposed the bill during the committee meeting, asserting the project was provenly safe via the NRC’s environmental report both in operating the facility and transporting the waste.
“No other technology is as safe and secure,” Mayer said. “It’s hard to overstate the robustness of these containers.”
Carlsbad City Councilor Edward Rodriguez said the city opposed the bill and touted the investment Holtec would bring to the state, contending all of the dollars invested in the project would stay in New Mexico.
Other supporters spoke at the meeting from Lea County, and other local government and business organizations.
“I stand before you, representing the souls that would live closest to this in full support of the project,” Rodriguez said.
Scott Kovac, director of Santa Fe-based watchdog group Nuclear Watch New Mexico said despite local support in southeast New Mexico for the Holtec project, the state already did its part in addressing the nation’s nuclear waste via the WIPP site.
The Holtec project, he said, would increase the state’s risk of a nuclear incident and should be stopped by lawmakers.
“The waste is safe where it is now, onsite at the reactor sites,” he said. “There’s no real reason to move it waste twice; to move it into New Mexico, and then move it to geologic repository which is where it’s going to have to go.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.