Bill to ban storage of used nuclear fuel in New Mexico passes House committee

The Rotunda in Santa Fe. Post file photo

By SCOTT WYLAND
Santa Fe’s New Mexican

A bill clearly aimed at preventing Holtec International from building an underground storage site for used nuclear fuel in southeastern New Mexico is moving forward.

The House Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee voted 5-4 to advance a bill that would ban storage or disposal of spent nuclear fuel in the state — and essentially kill Holtec’s plans to build a repository for this highly radioactive waste in the Carlsbad area.

It will now go to the House Judiciary Committee.

A key point of debate was whether the state had the power to prevent the federal government from approving what is described as an interim storage site to hold material until a permanent location is created.

Some lawmakers and regulators who support House Bill 127 say that while the state cannot interfere with how the commission regulates waste, it can block disposal sites that could have negative environmental impacts.

Opponents of the bill argue that the state would continue to pre-empt the authority of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the management of commercial nuclear waste. It’s just not allowed, no matter what criteria the state uses, they said.

But Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who strongly supports the bill, said the state is well within its rights to say no to nuclear disposal sites that could contaminate vital resources, such as groundwater, and pose risks to communities when waste is transported by rail across the country.

“Does New Mexico have the power to do this? Yes, we do,” Steinborn said. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has absolute primacy over the regulation of spent fuel. But what we’re talking about here is the location of that hardware and our concerns for multiple reasons.

Yet Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, argues that the federal government’s power to regulate radioactive materials trumps any state authority, including on environmental matters.

“I’m looking at your legislation, which seems to completely contradict that,” Scott said.

Last year, the state sued the federal government, saying the commission hadn’t done enough to ensure Holtec’s proposed site won’t harm the environment, communities or the oil industry. and gas in one of the country’s most fossil fuel-rich regions.

Although the site is described as temporary, Holtec is seeking a 40-year license to operate there, which opponents say would make it permanent.

Under-Secretary for the Environment Rebecca Roose said no permanent disposal site has been established, so the waste has nowhere to go.

“It’s more likely to stay there – the inertia will be to keep it there rather than move it somewhere else permanently,” Roose said, “if and when a permanent installation is identified.”

Those who oppose the bill have condemned it as a misguided effort to derail a project that would create up to 350 jobs and inject billions of dollars into the regional economy.

They also said a primary storage site was needed for the spent fuel that is accumulating in the country’s nuclear power plants and would help the plants continue to produce a form of energy that does not emit carbon and contributes to climate change.

Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway said Holtec will use the “safest and most secure” technology for the site, and the NRC is conducting a highly technical review.

“This project is very important for the economic development of our region,” said Janway. “We will also note that nuclear power is absolutely essential to addressing the climate crisis.”

Proponents of the bill say it is necessary to prevent a massive amount of highly radioactive waste from arriving in New Mexico and disproportionately affecting poor and minority communities.

“It is inconceivable that New Mexico should be the dumping ground for the nation’s misguided investments in nuclear energy and nuclear weapons,” said Paul Gibson, co-founder of Retake Our Democracy. “The risk to our community is far greater than the benefit.”

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