ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — An effort to prevent spent nuclear fuel produced by commercial US nuclear power plants from being shipped to New Mexico cleared its latest legislative hurdle on Friday, and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham intends to sign the measure into law.
The New Mexico House voted 35-28 in favor of the bill after a lengthy debate. Five Democrats joined opposition Republicans, arguing the bill would challenge long-standing federal authority over nuclear safety matters and lead to new court challenges.
The bill by state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, would affect a proposed multi-million dollar facility in southeastern New Mexico that would have the capacity to temporarily store up to 8,680 metric tons of spent uranium fuel. Future expansion could make room for up to 10,000 spent fuel canisters over six decades.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission may soon announce a decision on whether to license the project spearheaded by Holtec International, which has spent an estimated $80 million over the past eight years on the approval process.
Lujan Grisham and members of the New Mexico congressional delegation expressed strong opposition to building the facility along the state’s border with Texas. Both states sued the federal government over the issue, and top elected officials in Texas were unsuccessful in their efforts to prevent a similar facility in neighboring Andrews County from being licensed.
If the complex is licensed in New Mexico, it would still need permits from the state Department of Environment. That’s where critics say the state could lean on the legislation and stop the project.
Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, argued that there has been no incentive for states with nuclear power plants to find permanent solutions to deal with spent fuel. As long as New Mexico is considered as an option, those states won’t worry about the long-term effects, she said.
“The problem is that this is a forever decision. We can’t decide, oh, let’s not do this anymore and get rid of it,” Chasey said. “So think about the fact that if it was something that profitable and good, then the states that produced it would have it. near his facilities.”
According to the US Department of Energy, nuclear reactors across the country produce more than 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste a year, with most of it staying on site because there is nowhere else to put it.
Since the federal government has failed to build a permanent depot, it reimburses utility companies to house the fuel. That cost is expected to reach the tens of billions of dollars over the next decade, according to a review by independent government auditors.
The fuel sits at temporary storage sites in nearly three dozen states, either locked in steel-lined concrete pools of water or in steel and concrete containers known as barrels.
US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has spoken about revising recommendations made a decade ago by a high-level commission on America’s nuclear future. In November, her agency issued a request seeking information on a consent-based siting process to identify locations for storing commercial spent nuclear fuel.
Despite opposition from environmentalists, the Biden administration has signaled that nuclear power is essential to achieving its goals of creating a carbon-free power sector by 2035.
Some southeastern New Mexico lawmakers said local elected officials and residents would welcome the Holtec project and that visits to some of the current storage sites near power plants have shown that the barrels are safe.
They also touted the safety of transporting the material by rail to New Mexico, saying there would be armed guards aboard the trains and that tests have shown the containers would not release radiation in the event of a derailment.
Republican Rep. Cathrynn Brown, whose district includes the proposed Holtec site, said the region is already home to the federal government’s only underground repository for Cold War-era waste generated during nuclear research and bomb-making. It also houses a uranium enrichment plant.
The legislation sends a message to companies to “spend as much as you want and then we’ll pull the rug out for you,” Brown said. “And I don’t think that’s fair.”
Still, other lawmakers have raised concerns about the project, as it would be located within the Permian Basin, one of the most productive oil fields in the world. New Mexico derives a significant portion of its revenue from drilling.