Nuclear waste storage in southeast New Mexico drew the ire of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who called on President Joe Biden via a Wednesday letter to block such a project near Carlsbad and Hobbs for perceived threats to nearby residents and implications of environmental racism.
Holtec International proposed the project, which would store up to 100,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods on the surface in a remote area near the Eddy-Lea county line, after being recruited by a consortium of local leaders in the area known as the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance.
The Alliance provided the land, about 1,000 acres amid the oilfields of the Permian Basin, and worked with Holtec to promote the project and seek public support.
But Lujan Grisham, her administration and elected officials both at the state government and in Congress became opposed to the project, frequently voicing their disapproval in the years since.
The governor previously sent letters to former-President Donald Trump, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) which was considering issuing Holtec a license to build and operate the facility.
The NRC in July issued its final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project, contending it would pose minimal risks and recommending a license be issued.
In her letter to Biden, the Democrat governor said the NRC ignored the state’s lack of consent in moving forward with the project and asked the President, DOE and NRC to suspend the licensing process.
“New Mexico has grave concerns for the risk this proposed storage site would pose to our citizens and communities, our first responders, our environment, and to New Mexico’s agriculture and natural resource industries,” Lujan Grisham wrote.
NRC spokesman David McIntyre decline to comment on Lujan Grisham’s letter but said the final licensing decision was expected in February 2023, and that the agency’s review of Holtec’s application followed federal law.
“We have no comment on the Governor’s letter,” McIntyre said in a statement. “The NRC staff is reviewing the Holtec application according to the requirements of the Atomic Energy Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and NRC regulations.”
Lujan Grisham was not convinced.
She argued the Commission did not properly address the State’s concerns for threats to public health, surrounding industries like oil and gas and environmental justice issues as the site would be in an area heavily populated by Hispanic people and a state with a history of impacts from the nuclear industry.
That includes uranium mining in northern New Mexico believed the cause of widespread cancer in that area, and the first nuclear weapons testing in the south-central region near Alamogordo.
“Yet, the NRC continues to ignore this expressed opposition, as well as the significant and substantial issues the state, tribes, and many other stakeholders have raised, and has now recommended licensure of the Holtec facility,” Lujan Grisham wrote.
The Holtec site would also join several other nuclear facilities in southeast New Mexico, including the DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant waste repository and the URENCO National Enrichment Facility near Eunice.
Lujan Grisham contended the EIS did not adequately address the impacts to “vulnerable populations” in the event on an accident associated with the site or transportation of waste for storage.
“The proposed action threatens minority and low-income populations in New Mexico that have already suffered disproportionally high adverse human health and environment effects from nuclear energy and weapons programs of the United States,” read the letter to Biden.
“Until this private proposal is evaluated in consent-based framework, I urge you to order the NRC to suspend consideration of this license for Holtec to store nuclear waste in a state which has not consented and whose significant and substantial concerns have consistently been ignored.”
Holtec spokesman Patrick O’Brien said despite the State’s opposition, the company was “committed” to building the facility in New Mexico, touting its experience in nuclear technology including decommissioning power plants and handling the resulting waste.
“Holtec’s experience providing safe spent nuclear fuel storage solutions, decommissioning of nuclear facilities with protection of the environment and safety as the primary objectives, and our experience safely and securely protecting hundreds of canisters of spent nuclear fuel at our decommissioning sites around the country provides the basis to ensure this project will be safe and secure for the local community and the state as a whole,” O’Brien said in a statement.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.