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Nuclear waste issue divides candidates

WASHINGTON – A U.S. House vote on Thursday to revive Yucca Mountain as a repository for nuclear waste in Nevada revealed the different views of two candidates for governor of New Mexico on storing the waste temporarily in the state.

The House approved legislation 340-72 that would jump-start the long-mothballed nuclear waste facility in Nevada, despite the opposition of Nevada lawmakers. Under the House bill, an interim storage site would be created to store the waste before it is permanently disposed of in Nevada.

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce

Holtec International has applied for an interim storage license for a site in Lea County in southeastern New Mexico. The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a long-standing consortium of the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, and Lea and Eddy counties, is backing the move, with some community support. Backers of putting an interim storage site in New Mexico point to economic development and jobs that would result. Opponents cast it as a safety hazard that expands New Mexico’s role as a nuclear dumping ground. The nation’s nuclear industry is in search of new places to put spent nuclear fuel, which is being housed in makeshift sites at reactors around the country.

Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican running for governor of New Mexico, voted for the bill Thursday. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat also running for governor, voted against it. Pearce characterized the bill as good for national security.

Michelle Lujan Grisham

“This project, with community support, would continue to cement New Mexico as a national leader in nuclear energy production, development and disposal,” Pearce said after the vote. “I’ve always supported an all-of-the-above energy plan that unleashes America’s domestic energy production, and a part of that includes safely storing spent nuclear fuel to advance our nation’s defense strategy.”

Lujan Grisham said that if Holtec was licensed as a temporary storage facility and then Yucca Mountain never opened, New Mexico would be stuck with the waste.

“This bill will only create more uncertainty by creating a dangerous loophole that could permanently strand nuclear waste in New Mexico without any guarantee that a long-term strategy will eventually be agreed upon,” Lujan Grisham said. “Storing and transporting nuclear waste is incredibly dangerous. Singling out New Mexico and Nevada, and making massive policy changes based purely on political considerations is completely irresponsible.”

The nuclear industry has said temporary storage is a critical need because reopening Yucca Mountain would take years or even decades.

Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety program and administrator at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, said the bill approved by the House on Thursday would expand potential nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain from 63,000 metric tons to 110,000 metric tons. He also said it would shift temporary storage costs from private industry to taxpayers.

The bill now goes to the Senate and Nevada’s senators have vowed to try to derail it.

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