New Mexico’s top Democrat political leaders voiced their opposition to a proposed storage facility for nuclear waste to be built near Carlsbad and Hobbs, warning the U.S. Department of Energy that the site could become a perpetual dumping ground as a permanent repository does not exist.
Holtec International applied for a 40-year license to build a consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) at a remote location near the Eddy-Lea county line, through the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commissions (NRC) in 2017.
The company signaled it planned to file for subsequent licenses to continue to operate the facility during 20 phases which would total more than 100,000 metric tons of waste when complete.
The site would be designed to hold spent nuclear fuel rods, brought in via rail from nuclear power plants around the country, on a temporary basis while a permanent repository is built.
The U.S. has not permanent facility after the Yucca Mountain, Nevada storage project stalled with lawmaker opposition and was defunded under the administration of former-President Barrack Obama.
Supporters argued the CISF was safe and could bring economic diversity and benefits to southeast New Mexico, an area reliant on oil and gas extraction for most of its economy.
The opposition contended the project posed too much risk and could upend other major industries in the region like agriculture and fossil fuels.
In the July 2 letter, New Mexico Democrat U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan, U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-NM) and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Holtec’s proposal contained no plan for permanent disposal of the waste and thus risked leaving it in New Mexico forever.
Lujan Grisham was a frequent critic of the project since its inception, calling the proposal “economic malpractice” for the risk she said it posed to other industries.
The lawmakers also opposed a similar proposal to expand a facility owned by Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, Texas along that state’s western border with New Mexico, to also hold the spent fuel.
“We are strongly opposed to the interim storage of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and high-level waste (HLW) in New Mexico. There is currently no permanent disposal strategy for SNF and HLW in place at the Department of Energy,” the letter read.
“This leaves us extremely concerned that ‘interim’ storage sites with initial 40-year leases, like one proposed for (the NRC) licensing in New Mexico, will become the country’s de facto permanent nuclear waste storage facilities. We cannot accept that result.”
New Mexico had already seen the impacts of radiation exposure, the letter read, resulting from uranium mining and other activities in the state
Holtec’s supporters repeatedly argued since the licensing process began that Holtec could join the growing “nuclear corridor” southeast New Mexico along with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and the URENCO nuclear fuel enrichment facility in Eunice.
“The people of New Mexico have long been at the forefront of our national security mission and the discovery of nuclear science and technologies. Unfortunately, in some cases, this has resulted in situations that have harmed the health and wellbeing of New Mexicans,” the letter read.
“We cannot repeat such harms by establishing interim nuclear waste storage sites, especially without a permanent waste disposal strategy.”
The letter urged Granholm and the DOE to work to establish a strategy for permanently disposing of the nation’s nuclear waste, arguing the CISF was premature as a final plan was not in placed.
“We would welcome collaborative work to establish a coherent, consent-based federal policy on managing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel and high level waste and look forward to engaging in that work with you,” read the letter.
In June, Heinrich testified as to his concerns for the Holtec site during a hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in review of the President Joe Biden’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget request for the DOE.
When questioning Granholm, he said the DOE should fulfill its “statutory responsibility” to dispose of nuclear waste and that failing to do so could make permanent sites designed to be temporary.
“Unless DOE fulfills its statutory responsibility to provide permanent waste disposal, interim sites can become permanent sites,” he said. “That is not something my state is signed up for.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.