ADVERTISEMENT

New Mexico debates bill to block spent nuclear fuel storage

February 1, 2022 GMT

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation already have voiced strong opposition to building a multibillion-dollar facility along the state’s border with Texas that would store tons of spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants around the U.S.

Now, the New Mexico Legislature is considering a bill that supporters say would keep the state from becoming the nation’s de facto permanent dumping ground for nuclear waste.

Top New Mexico officials contend the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hasn’t done enough to vet plans by Holtec International to build a facility to store thousands of tons of spent uranium in the state. They argue that without a plan by the federal government to deal with spent fuel, the material would remain in New Mexico indefinitely.

ADVERTISEMENT

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has also expressed his opposition to a similar storage facility in his state. Both states have sued the federal government over the issue.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces, who is sponsoring the New Mexico legislation, said the federal government needs to address the problem and establish a policy for dealing with the spent fuel piling up at the nation’s nuclear power plants.

“New Mexico, with less than one half of 1% of the nation’s population, should not continue to be the sacrifice zone because we can be exploited,” he told fellow lawmakers, noting that many communities have passed resolutions opposed to bringing high-level nuclear waste to the state.

Some southeastern New Mexico residents testified during a legislative committee meeting Tuesday that Holtec International’s proposal would be safe and create jobs.

In New Mexico, the planned facility initially would store up to 8,680 metric tons of used uranium fuel. Future expansion could make room for as many as 10,000 canisters of spent fuel over six decades.

Federal regulators in September granted a license for an interim storage facility across the border in Andrews County, Texas. That facility is licensed to take up to 5,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods from power plants and more than 231 tons of other radioactive waste. Possible expansion could increase the total capacity to 40,000 metric tons of fuel, but additional regulatory approval would be needed.

After regulators approved that site, Abbott, the Republican Texas governor, tweeted: “Texas will not become America’s nuclear waste dumping ground.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

The federal government is paying to house the fuel, and the cost is expected to stretch into the tens of billions over the next decade, according to a review by independent government auditors.

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.

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has talked about revisiting recommendations made a decade ago by a blue ribbon commission on America’s nuclear future. In November, her agency issued a request seeking input on a consent-based siting process to identify locations to store commercial spent nuclear fuel.

Despite opposition from environmentalists, the Biden administration has pointed to nuclear power as essential to achieving its goals to create a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035.

Opponents of the New Mexico legislation testified Tuesday that banning interim storage would take the state out of the national conversation and that could result in missed opportunities to address climate change.

State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, a retired law professor from Albuquerque, said federal law requires consent and that New Mexico has numerous concerns beyond the safety of an interim storage facility. She pointed to potential impacts on oil and gas development in the Permian Basin, which is one of the most productive regions in the world, and to environmental justice concerns for minority populations.

Sedillo Lopez said the legislation still will need to stand up to any legal challenges.

“This is a very, very serious issue,” she said. “It’s something that the state should take a long hard look at and exercise its authority in the areas where we have authority to do so.”