Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

The Land of Enchantment Puts its Gloves On for Upcoming Battle with NRC

Across the country at temporary sites and power plants, utility companies are paid around $2 million a day in taxpayer money to store the Department of Energy’s  80,000 metric tons of radioactive nuclear waste. The US has a big problem with what to do with it and has spent billions of dollars over more than 50 years trying to identify a permanent repository for nuclear material. They can’t find a state that wants it.

City and County Leaders Said Yes.

The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, composed of city and county leaders from Carlsbad, Hobbs, Eddy and Lea counties, recruited Holtec International to propose a plan for a nuclear waste site. The proposed site would be built on land the Alliance owns near Carlsbad and Hobbs in the Permian Basin in southeast New Mexico.

Holtec, a private company, came up with a proposal of building a temporary storage site for up to 100,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste from reactors around the US in a consolidated interim storage facility (CISF).

Those in favor of the CISF project say it would create $3 billion in capital investment, 350 construction and operation jobs and help diversify the economy in a region dominated by the oil and gas industry. They advocate that the waste, much of it currently stored near large cities or bodies of water, would be safer if kept in the remote deserts of southeast New Mexico and West Texas.

An environmental impact statement recently released by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) stated that there would be minimal impact from the Holtec project and recommended a license be issued. A final decision is expected next year. Without a permanent site for the nuclear waste, the CISF could hold the waste indefinitely. Last year, the NRC issued Interim Storage Partners’ existing facility located in Andrews. Texas a license for a CISF for nuclear waste of up to 40,000 metric tons.

Why Not Take the Money and Run?

The proposed Holtec CSIF is in the Permian Basin close to thousands of new oil and gas wells in one of the busiest oil fields in the world. Earthquakes can be triggered by a high-pressure plume of wastewater hitting a fault line after spreading slowly over time or by drilling new disposal wells. Faults that trigger earthquakes can lie at any depth and can sometimes be several miles away from the disposal wells. The biggest quakes so far in the basin were a 5.0 on 26 March 2020 and a 4.5 magnitude on 17 March 2021.

In addition to earthquakes, other risks include radiation contamination by truck or train accidents while transporting the waste, storage canister failure, potential sinkholes opening up, playa lakes and aquifer contamination.

State Governors and Lawmakers Speak Out Against CISF

In response to the federal government’s forging ahead to create nuclear dump sites, the Western Governors Association passed a resolution that demands no CISF be built or operated within a state without written consent from that state’s governor.

The resolution states: “No consolidated facility for nuclear waste, whether interim or permanent, or privately or federally owned and operated, shall be located within the geographic boundaries of a western state or U.S. territory without the written consent of the current Governor in whose state or territory the facility is to be located.”

The governors also called on the federal government to devise regulations that include state consent when siting and licensing facilities that would be used to store nuclear waste. Bipartisan legislative bills prohibiting CISFs approval by the federal government without the state consent, have been introduced into Congress by a group from Texas and New Mexico.

Due to the impact the CISF site could have on nearby fossil fuel and agriculture operations, New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and Texas governor Greg Abbott are against the projects. Calling the CISF projects “economic malpractice” Lujan Grisham has reached out to New Mexico lawmakers for legislation to be introduced in the 2023 Legislative Session to block CISF. Texas lawmakers passed a bill last year against CISF proposals.

In the 2022 legislative session Senate Bill 54 and House Bill 127 were introduced to prohibit state agencies from issuing permits for high-level nuclear waste storage facilities. Action was postponed indefinitely on both bills.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-36), who sponsored SB 54 said “This is a moment in time, before this facility gets licensed, we get to take a shot at the asteroid, we get to knock it off course, This is a private company storing waste essentially on top of the ground.”

“Our state of New Mexico has had more than its fair share of sacrifices for nuclear projects in the state,” Steinborn said. “This is basically being promulgated on New Mexico.”

According to Bruce Baizel, attorney with the New Mexico Environment Department, federal law does not preclude the state from denying permits to the project such as access to groundwater or wastewater discharge. The CISF could be built, however it would not be able to operate.

House committee Chair Matthew McQueen (D-50), who sponsored HB 127, said “I don’t want the state of New Mexico being known as the nation’s dumping ground. I think we’ve already done our part. We have WIPP, we have the Trinity Site. We still have downwinders suffering from the impacts of that. I don’t want to accept other people’s waste and that’s what it is.”