New Mexico backs Texas in opposing nuclear fuel storage

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Top New Mexico leaders say they’re open to “most anything” that would prevent spent nuclear fuel and other high-level waste from being stored indefinitely in the state, including legislation like a measure recently adopted by Texas to prevent the shipping and storage of such waste.

The renewed criticism this week of planned temporary storage facilities in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico came as federal regulators just granted a license for the proposed operation in Texas.

Interim Storage Partners LLC plans to build a facility in Andrews County that could take up to 5,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods from power plants and 231 million tons of other radioactive waste.

In New Mexico, Holtec International is awaiting approval of its license application for a facility that initially would store up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium. Future expansion could make room for as many as 10,000 canisters of spent fuel over six decades.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, and other top officials already have submitted comments in opposition to the multibillion-dollar proposal on their side of the state line and to the Texas project. New Mexico also is suing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, claiming it hasn’t done enough to vet Holtec’s plans.

Lujan Grisham’s office said it would be open to exploring legislation and to seeking funding that could boost efforts by New Mexico regulators to push back administratively.

“We are open to most anything in preventing the placement of this kind of national high-level waste depository in New Mexico,” Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, told The Associated Press in an email.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said the case against the NRC is in the early stages and he still has concerns.

“As a largely poor state and with communities predominantly of color, it is unacceptable to view New Mexico as a dumping ground for the country’s nuclear waste,” he said. “And the Department of Energy, Congress and the Legislature should absolutely do everything within their power to protect New Mexican families.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has a similar stance and tweeted this week that “‘Texas will not become America’s nuclear waste dumping ground.”

Holtec said the New Jersey-based company and its partners in the New Mexico counties of Eddy and Lea are committed to completing the federal regulatory process for the proposed facility.

“Though we are mindful of the developments in Texas, the Holtec and ELEA (Eddy Lea Energy Alliance) project has strong support from local community leaders as they understand the proposed project is safe and will be an economic benefit to the area,” said Joe Delmar, the company’s senior director of government affairs and communications.

Texas and New Mexico fear the waste will be stranded in their states because the federal government has failed over decades to find a permanent disposal site.

According to the Energy Department, nuclear reactors across the country produce more than 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste a year, with most of it remaining on-site because there’s nowhere else to put it.

The fuel is sitting at temporary storage sites in nearly three dozen states, either enclosed in steel-lined concrete pools of water or in steel and concrete containers known as casks.

In the 1980s, the Energy Department and Congress approved building a permanent underground burial site in Nevada. Officials there fought the project for years, and Congress eliminated funding for it in 2011. Federal approval was granted for a temporary dump in Utah in 2006, but it was never built.

New Mexico state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, a Democrat who heads the Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, said passing new legislation would send “an unmistakable message” that the region is against becoming the repository for spent fuel.

The Biden administration has been vague at best with how it intends to address the problem, Steinborn said.

“What I would really like to hear is a commitment to go back to the drawing board on figuring out a permanent solution,” he said. “Right now, we have a situation where the tail is wagging the dog, where national policy is being promulgated by a private company and a small handful of people who have decided this is a good business opportunity.”