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NM leaders decry federal license for nuclear storage facility

A new state law may be put to the test, as Holtec International considers next steps

The New Mexico Congressional delegation, local officials and environmental groups vowed to fight a high-level nuclear waste storage facility slated to be built in southern New Mexico.

On Tuesday, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a license allowing nuclear equipment company Holtec International to build and operate a storage facility in a rural site between Hobbs and Carlsbad for 40 years. The federal body oversees nuclear licensing, safety and regulations across the nation and had initially delayed issuing a license back in March.

In the 2023 legislative session, New Mexico passed Senate Bill 53, which should be in effect June 15. The law increased a state oversight board and bans state agencies from granting permits, contracts or leases for building a high-level nuclear waste storage facility. This would include New Mexico Department of Transportation and New Mexico Environment permits needed for construction and operations.

In a joint statement, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Attorney General Raúl Torrez said New Mexico’s concerns were “wholly ignored and went unaddressed” by both Holtec and regulators. 

“We are evaluating available legal recourse and will take any action necessary to make sure that ground is never broken on this ‘interim’ facility in New Mexico,” said the joint statement. 

During the legislative session, Holtec lobbyists claimed New Mexico was overreaching with the state law, running into an issue called preemption – since the federal government has final say over nuclear permitting.

The new law prevents the local governments in the region, not just state agencies, from approving contracts or leases for the facility – which is within the state’s authority, said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces).

“I think it’s very questionable whether any new agreement would be legal, and I think you can argue it would not be,” Steinborn said. 

Opponents of the facility are concerned that without a permanent storage site for high level nuclear waste these interim facilities will fill that role over time. The government abandoned the effort to build a permanent nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain after years of Nevada’s opposition.

“The federal government is really not following its own laws,” said Camilla Feibelman, the director of the Rio Grande Sierra Club. “I don’t understand why they think that it’s optional to build a permanent facility before starting interim facilities.”

The NRC decision wasn’t a surprise, said Leona Morgan, a Diné anti-nuclear activist who has protested uranium mining on the Navajo Nation, as well as Holtec’s plan to transport waste from across the country.

“We’ve been fighting this for years,” Morgan said. “Now that the license is issued, it’s confirmation we’re going to keep fighting it.”

The NRC has previously licensed two similar facilities, but neither one has ever operated. 

All five members of the congressional delegation opposed the decision in a joint statement and called the decision “unacceptable.”

Last year, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.) joined with Texas lawmakers and introduced a bill in both houses that would prevent federal funds from being used for interim storage of nuclear waste. Neither bill has been taken up by a committee. 

“Today the Nuclear Regulatory Commission used ‘interim’ standards to approve indefinite nuclear storage in New Mexico. No matter how many times NRC and Holtec use the word ‘interim,’ it doesn’t make it so. And the people left to pay the consequences will be New Mexicans,” Heinrich said in the joint statement.

Holtec officials celebrated the licensure for the facility in a written statement Tuesday, with CEO Kris Singh calling it a “triumph of private perseverance in the service of public purpose,” in a written statement.

As for next steps, the company said it was unsure of a timeline, but indicated the plan will be to move forward at the location halfway between Hobbs and Carlsbad. The land is owned by Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance made up of local government officials, and has been a vocal proponent of the facility.

“The strong local support in the counties of Eddy and Lea solidify our belief that the project is still viable,” wrote Patrick O’Brien, a spokesperson for Holtec, in an email.

The License 

The license allows Florida-based Holtec International to “receive, possess, transfer and store 500 canisters holding approximately 8,680 metric tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel for 40 years.”

The Government Accountability Office estimates the U.S. generated more than 85,000 metric tons of spent fuel in 2018, growing by 2,000 tons a year.

The plan is to eventually store up to 10,000 canisters, over the course of 90 phases. An NRC press release noted that each expansion would require a license amendment and additional safety and environment reviews.

Spent fuel is usually the ceramic pellets of Uranium-235 used to generate electricity at nuclear power plants. Currently, nuclear waste is kept in current and former nuclear power plants around the country. The federal government has paid billions of dollars to utilities for failing to dispose of the waste.

Different types of nuclear waste decay at varying rates. But many of the materials can be radioactive for tens of thousands of years. These hazardous materials can produce fatal radiation doses over long periods of time or can contaminate the environment.