ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Environmentalists and other watchdog groups want New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to create a government agency that would be tasked with keeping the state from becoming a permanent dumping ground for spent nuclear fuel and other high-level waste.
Dozens of groups sent a letter Friday to the Democratic governor. They pointed to Nevada’s past success in mothballing the once-proposed Yucca Mountain waste repository project in that state and asked the governor to consider similar measures to protect New Mexico.
“New Mexico’s people and our environment deserve better treatment than a plan offering millions of years of a public health menace from radioactive waste spreading into our soil, air, water and rivers,” the letter states. “Please consider what more aggressive steps can be taken to defeat the Holtec plan.”
New Jersey-based Holtec is seeking a 40-year license from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build what it has described as a state-of-the-art complex near Carlsbad. Company executives have said the project is needed because the federal government has yet to find a permanent solution for dealing with the tons of spent fuel building up at commercial nuclear power plants around the U.S.
The first phase of the project calls for storing up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, which would be packed into 500 canisters. Future expansion could make room for as many as 10,000 canisters of spent nuclear fuel.
Holtec has said the site in New Mexico — about 35 miles (56 kilometers) from Carlsbad — is remote and geologically stable. The company also has said the four-layer casks that would hold the spent fuel would be made of steel and lead and transported on a guarded train.
State officials in comments recently submitted to federal regulators opposed a preliminary recommendation by staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that a license be granted to Holtec to build the multibillion-dollar facility. They said technical analysis has been inadequate so far and accused regulators of failing to consider environmental justice concerns and meet requirements spelled out by federal environmental laws.
Dave McCoy of Citizen Action is among those who signed the letter sent to Lujan Grisham. He said Monday that there's a push to approve New Mexico for “interim” storage knowing that the waste will never leave.
The governor's office did not immediately respond to questions about what options she might consider as the licensing process continues.
In Nevada, the state's commission on nuclear projects was created in the 1980s to advise the governor and state lawmakers on matters related to the disposal of radioactive waste and to oversee activities of the state's Agency for Nuclear Projects. Agency officials over the years challenged the U.S. Energy Department, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and nuclear energy lobby.
Elected leaders in southeastern New Mexico have supported Holtec's plans, saying the project will bring in $3 billion in capital investment and more jobs to the region. New Mexico already is home to the federal government's only underground nuclear waste repository, a uranium enrichment plant and two national labs that conduct nuclear research.
John Heaton, the city of Carlsbad's energy development coordinator, said community leaders would not be advocating for something that would be detrimental to their own families and residents.
Holtec has requested meetings with the governor numerous times through various state officials, but to no avail, Heaton said.
“This should be a business decision for her and not a political one,” he said. “With the collapse of the oil and gas industry and what may be a very long recovery, it becomes even more important for us in southeast New Mexico to diversify our economy and provide jobs for our people.”