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New Mexico shouldn’t be the nation’s nuclear dump.

The New Mexican, May 13, 2023

The federal government’s longstanding failure to build a repository for nuclear waste should not be left for New Mexico to solve.

Yet a decision last week by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to issue a license to “temporarily” store tons of spent nuclear fuel in New Mexico could mean waste from commercial power plants across the nation will end up buried in the state. It’s bad news for us, of course, but it’s catastrophic for a nation that has never fully come to grips with the reality of nuclear power.

To recap: The commission said it will allow Holtec International to build and operate a nuclear waste storage facility near the Lea and Eddy County line in far southeast New Mexico.

This, despite the clear message from New Mexico’s congressional delegation, governor and statewide elected officials that the state is not interested in being the one-size-fits-all nuclear storage solution for the country. New Mexico already hosts the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. It stores transuranic waste, a byproduct of the country’s nuclear defense program.

Opening the Holtec facility would up the ante, bringing highly radioactive spent fuel to our state. The spent fuel consists of uranium pellets inside metal rods and can be handled only by machines. It’s so radioactive people who work near it are protected by steel or concrete.

The consolidated interim storage facility planned for New Mexico would have the capacity to store up to 8,680 metric tons of used uranium fuel, with possible future expansions to make room for as many as 10,000 canisters over six decades.

Material would arrive in New Mexico via rail. While that seems a smidge safer than high-speed truck traffic over crowded interstates and well-traveled New Mexico roads, recent derailments make the thought of rail travel worrisome.

And temporary has a way of becoming permanent, considering the federal government has no solution for the growing piles of waste at commercial nuclear reactors all over the country.

With New Mexico’s nuclear history — home of the atomic bomb, site of nuclear bomb testing and today’s expanded plutonium pit construction — surely the state has contributed its share. Besides, who is the NRC trying to kid? A storage facility cannot be “interim” without a final, designated location. Such a site does not exist. And when it comes to anything nuclear, there’s no such thing as interim or temporary.

The decision by federal regulators to license the plant ignores the will of the state Legislature — lawmakers passed legislation during the 2023 session aimed at stopping the project. Next up: a court battle over the license.

Holtec officials, evidently unconcerned about the will of New Mexico’s elected representatives and many of its citizens, point to federal law, which they say preempts state action. The company already has invested $80 million to seek the 40-year license to build and operate the facility. Officials are promising an economic boom to go along with becoming the nation’s nuclear waste dump.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, local officials in southeastern New Mexico — some of them, anyway — are welcoming the jobs the plant will bring. We’re not sure they have thought out the potential long-term consequences, considering the federal government’s reluctance to confront the problem of nuclear waste. A storage site was going to be built at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but state and federal politics blocked the project.

As a result, the United States lacks the infrastructure to dispose of radioactive nuclear waste. And that’s where the state’s congressional delegation comes in. They must push harder, fanatically if need be, to break the legislative logjam on Yucca Mountain, which has become an accepted impasse. This state’s future depends on their success.

Meanwhile, New Mexico is poised to become the interim — cue eye roll — solution. That’s not the future New Mexico wants or deserves.


May 15, 2023 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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