New Mexico congresspeople joined by Ted Cruz to oppose nuclear waste projects

By:  Adrian Hedden

A bipartisan effort to block storage of spent nuclear fuel took the form of a bill introduced in Congress by New Mexico Democrats and Texas Republicans as private companies hope to build such facilities along the border of both states.

Holtec International proposed building a facility that could ultimately hold up to 100,000 metric tons of the waste in a remote area near the border of Eddy and Lea counties, while Waste Control Specialists (WCS) proposed a similar facility near Andrews, Texas.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently issued a license to the WCS facility, and recommended a license be granted to Holtec with a final decision expected this year.

The recent bill introduced by U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) would deny any federal funds to such a facility for their construction or operations, including payments from the federal Judgement Fund the senators worried could be shifted to Holtec or WCS from utilities that are presently storing the waste at reactor sites.

The legislation was cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM).

It would also require the U.S. Department of Energy to reports on possible nuclear waste storage sites or repositories.

The bill would not ban such facilities in the U.S., but deny them federal dollars.

Both sites were designed to temporarily hold used fuel from nuclear power generators around the country, from California to New York, and both were opposed by state officials including New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott.

Supporters contended the projects would remove the radioactive material from high-population areas, large bodies of water and seismically-sensitive regions of the U.S.

Opponents like Heinrich and Lujanargued the sites could become the final resting places for the waste, in their states, and instead the federal government should devise a permanent solution.

Permanent disposal for this kind of nuclear waste does not exist in the U.S., after the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada was defunded following that state’s opposition.

“Until the Department of Energy fulfills its statutory responsibility to provide permanent waste disposal, interim sites can become permanent sites. That is not something my state is signed up for,” Heinrich said.

“That’s why I’m proud to lead this bipartisan legislation to prevent New Mexico from ending up with a long-term nuclear waste storage problem that was supposed to be a short-term solution.”

Cruz said that while he supported nuclear energy, the waste must be permanently disposed of as opposed to temporary storage in his state or others.

“Nuclear energy can be reliable, affordable, and a great way to meet growing energy demands,” he said. “This bill would prevent temporary nuclear storage from being built and transported in Texas and elsewhere, funded by fees intended for permanent storage.

“Congress needs to implement permanent nuclear waste solutions, not settle for interim storage that concerns Texas communities.”

U.S. House joins fight against nuclear waste site

An equivalent bill in the U.S. House of Representatives was introduced by U.S. Reps. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-NM), August Plfuger (R-Texas), and U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-NM) served as a cosponsor.

Leger Fernandez said New Mexico had a history of “environmental injustice” related to the nuclear waste industry and the Holtec project was a continuation of such a legacy.

“Nuevo Mexicanos are no strangers to environmental injustices, especially those related to nuclear testing and waste. We have a responsibility to protect our communities, environment, and industries,” she said. “This bicameral, bipartisan bill will make sure that our beautiful home does not become a de facto dumping ground for nuclear waste.”

But government officials and others in Carlsbad and Hobbs were supportive of the project as a means to diversify the economy of the southeast region of New Mexico away from a seemingly singular reliance on oil and gas.

That’s why the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs and Eddy and Lea counties form the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA), which chose the site for the Holtec project and recruited the company.

Jack Volpato, co-chair of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force which worked with ELEA on the Holtec project, along with issues pertaining to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, said the economic benefits to the region would also extend to the rest of the nation.

He said the Holtec project presented a solution to a problem, using private industry, that the federal government was so far unable to resolve.

“Private industry has always been able to do things better and more efficient than the government,” Volpato said. “We’ve seen the dilemma with this waste sitting in the DOE’s hands for decades and decades.”

Volpato was critical of New Mexico’s congresspeople for supporting a bill he said would impede the U.S.’ mitigation of its nuclear waste concerns in what Volpato said was a safe method. 

“For the nation, I think it’s incredibly short sighted,” he said. I’m very disappointed Sen. Heinrich would support this. We’re trying to get this stuff sequestered. It’s away from fault, cities, waterways, it’s away from anywhere where anything could happen to it. We’re moving it into the desert.”

Interim storage sites like those proposed by Holtec and WCS, Volpato said, could ultimately push Congress and the federal government to accelerate its work in developing a permanent repository.

 “I believe by starting the ball rolling with these interim storage facilities, it will finally get the government to get serious about a permanent repository,” he said. “Either start up Yucca Mountain or find a new place.”

The federal bill was the latest in efforts to oppose Holtec, Volpato said, after New Mexico state legislation intended to block the project was tabled in the recent Legislative Session.

“We’ve got local consent here,” he said. “They couldn’t beat us at the state level so now this is their next step. We’re ready for that fight.”