New Mexico opts for veto power in spent nuclear fuel debate

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — The governor of New Mexico signed legislation Friday aimed at barring the shipment of spent nuclear fuel from commercial U.S. nuclear power plants into the state, just hours after the measure cleared its final legal hurdle .

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wasted no time adding her signature after the New Mexico House of Representatives voted 35-28 in favor of the bill after a long debate. Five Democrats joined Republicans in opposition, arguing that the measure would challenge long-standing federal authority on nuclear safety issues and lead to new lawsuits in court.

The bill by Las Cruces Senator Jeff Steinborn will affect a proposed multi-billion dollar facility in southeastern New Mexico that would have the capacity to temporarily store up to 8,680 tons of used uranium fuel. A future expansion could accommodate up to 10,000 spent fuel canisters over six decades.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission may soon announce a decision on whether to grant a license for the Holtec International-led project, which has spent an estimated $80 million in the permitting process over the past eight years.

Lujan Grisham and members of the New Mexico congressional delegation have strongly opposed building the facility along the Texas state line. Both states are suing the federal government over the matter, and senior elected officials in Texas have been unsuccessful in efforts to prevent a similar facility from being approved in neighboring Andrews County.

If a license is granted for the complex in New Mexico, permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection would still be required. Critics say the state could lean on the legislation and halt the project.

Rep. Gail Chasey, a Democrat from Albuquerque, argued that there was no incentive for states with nuclear power plants to find permanent solutions to deal with spent fuel. As long as New Mexico is considered an option, those states won’t care about the long-term impact, she said.

“The problem is that this is a forever decision. We don’t have to decide, oh, let’s stop doing this and take it away,” Chasey said. “So think of the fact that if it were such a profitable and good thing, the states that produced it would have it close to their facilities.”

According to the US Department of Energy, nuclear reactors across the country produce more than 2,000 tons of radioactive waste annually, most of which remains on site because there is nowhere else to dispose of it.

Because the federal government failed to build a repository, it reimburses utilities for the cost of housing the fuel. According to a review by independent government auditors, these costs are expected to reach tens of billions of dollars over the next decade.

The fuel is stored in temporary storage facilities in nearly three dozen states, either enclosed in steel-lined concrete pools or in steel and concrete containers known as barrels.

US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has spoken about reconsidering recommendations on America’s nuclear future made by a high-level commission a decade ago. In November, her agency issued a request for input on a consent-based site process to identify sites for storage of commercial spent nuclear fuel.

Despite opposition from environmentalists, the Biden administration has indicated that nuclear power is essential to meeting its goals of creating a zero-carbon power sector by 2035.

Some Southeast New Mexico lawmakers said local elected officials and residents welcomed the Holtec project and that visits to some of the current storage sites near power plants had shown the casks to be safe.

They also promoted the safety of transporting the material to New Mexico by rail, saying armed guards would be on board the trains and that tests had shown the barrels would not release radiation in the event of a derailment.

Republican Rep. Cathrynn Brown, whose district includes the proposed Holtec site, said the region already has the federal government’s only underground storage facility for Cold War-era waste from nuclear research and bomb-making. It also houses a uranium enrichment plant.

The legislation sends a message to companies “to invest as much as you want and then we’ll pull the rug out from under you,” Brown said. “And I don’t think that’s fair.”

However, other lawmakers have raised concerns about the project because it would be located in the Permian Basin, one of the world’s most productive oil fields. New Mexico derives a significant portion of its revenue from drilling.

Susan Montoya Bryan, The Associated Press


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