Why does the federal government say nuclear waste is safe for New Mexico despite objections?

By:  Adrian Hedden

Federal nuclear waste regulators issued a report that continued their support of a proposed project to store spent nuclear fuel at a remote location in the desert of southeast New Mexico, despite continued opposition from state and federal elected officials from that state.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its final environmental impact statement Wednesday for a project proposed by New Jersey-based Holtec International, seeking to allay concerns that the facility would impact nearby oil and gas drilling or agriculture and recommending a federal license be issued.

Approval of the 40-year license would follow a subsequent safety review of the plans expected in January 2023, that would consider any potential harm to people the facility could cause.

It would allow the first of 20 stages of the project to begin, storing initially about 8,000 metric tons of the waste, with plans to ultimately store up to 100,000 metric tons.

The project would see Holtec store spent nuclear fuel rods shipped to an about 1,000-acre plot of land in southeast New Mexico via rail from power plants around the country and hold them temporarily while a permanent repository is developed.

A permanent facility does not exist in the U.S. after such a proposal at Yucca Mountain, Nevada was discontinued following opposition from state leaders.

In the report, the NRC contended it consulted with federal, state and Indigenous leaders in New Mexico in issuing the report, while also considering comments submitted by residents throughout the state on the project and a draft of the report published last year.

“Based on its environmental review, the NRC staff recommendation is issuance of a license to Holtec authorizing the initial phase of the project, subject to the determinations in the staff’s safety review of the application,” read the report.

Construction of the facility would have “small” impacts, the report read, occurring on about 330 acres and entailing mitigation of disturbed areas the NRC reported Holtec committed to in its application by restoring native vegetation and fencing off the area to protect adjacent lands.

The NRC reported there was “abundant” open land around the site for grazing that would suffice when the land for the project was closed off during construction and operation of the site.

A cut away of a cask used by Holtec international to transport spent nuclear fuel
This would also reduce impacts to recreation in the area, along with nearby potash mining, the report read, although the report speculated additional mining in the area was unlikely due to the recent market for the mineral.

The site would also “minimally” impact oil and gas extraction while it was being built and while in operation, the report read, as fossil fuel reserves would still be accessible for both vertical and horizontal drilling.

Storage casks of the nuclear fuel rods would be stored in silos extending about 40 feet deep, per the proposal, while oil and gas is typically extracted at depths thousands of feet underground.

Transportation of the waste to the Holtec site would also have “small” impacts,” the NRC reported, as workers would be exposed to no more than 2.5 rems of radiation annually, compared to the 0.32 rems the NRC estimated the average person receives every year.

The exact routes the waste would take from generator sites was undetermined, per the report, at the time of the NRC's analysis.

The NRC reported similar doses would be received during operations of the facility.

Nuclear waste project, report slammed by New Mexico leadership

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham hoped similar opposition from her state would prevent the project from continuing, arguing it posed risks to public safety and other industries in the area.

Her stance was followed by a lawsuit filed last year by New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas against the NRC, aiming to block the project via court order.

The case against the NRC was dismissed in March by U.S. District Judge James O. Browning for the District of New Mexico who asserted the court did not have jurisdiction to rule in the matter, which fell to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

No such case was filed in U.S. appellate courts, records show.

The proposed site for the facility in the Permian Basin, the U.S.’ most active oilfield that also provides more than a third of New Mexico’s budget.

Lujan Grisham condemned the NRC’s latest report as ignoring fears from leaders that it could threaten that economic driver and the desires of the people of New Mexico.

“Despite my strong objections and concerns over public health, economic, scientific, natural resource and environmental justice – and those of tribal leaders, local governments, and the people of New Mexico – the NRC is effectively choosing profit over public interest,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement.

She worried the project, proposed and designed as a temporary measure could become permanent, placing the risks of nuclear waste solely on New Mexico’s shoulders.

Lujan Grisham called for lawmakers during their upcoming session starting in January to produce legislation that could block the project from coming to fruition.

“The state of New Mexico will not become a dumping ground for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel due to Congress’s failure to identify a permanent disposal solution for commercial nuclear waste,” she said.

“My message to the state Legislature is clear: deliver a proposal to my desk that protects New Mexico from becoming the de facto home of the country’s spent nuclear fuel and it will have my full support.”

Such legislation does exist in Congress where two New Mexico Democrats U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez partnered with Texas Republicans U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep. August Pfluger in a rare moment of party unity to prevent high-level nuclear waste storage in their states.

A similar proposal at the Interim Storage Partners facility in Andrews, Texas at the New Mexico-Texas border received a license from the NRC last year, and received condemnation from leaders in the state due to concerns similar to New Mexico’s.

The bill would block federal funds from supporting any interim storage site of nuclear fuel, nationwide, by a private company.

“New Mexicans didn’t sign up for this type of interim storage in their backyards. This decision from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reinforces why we need to find a permanent repository and the importance of consent-based siting,” Heinrich said. “Private facilities shouldn’t be railroading states.”

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, a co-sponsor of the bill who represents the state’s First Congressional District mostly comprising of urban centers Albuquerque and Santa in northern New Mexico, argued that despite the assertions in the NRC’s report, the project posed a danger to New Mexicans.

She also pointed to New Mexico’s legacy of bearing the hazards, Stansbury said, of the nuclear industry, which includes the site where the first nuclear bombs were tested at the Trinity Site near Alamogordo, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant repository for transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste near Carlsbad and uranium mining throughout the state.

Southeast New Mexico also hosts the URENCO uranium enrichment plant in Eunice.

The state does not contain any nuclear power plants that generate the kind of waste Holtec desires to store.

“For far too long New Mexico’s communities have borne the unequal costs of nuclear waste,” Stansbury said. “I disagree with the findings of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's environmental impact statement."