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State could block nuclear storage site near Carlsbad even if federally licensed

State lawmakers maintained they will have a say in a proposed facility to store high-level nuclear waste near Carlsbad and Hobbs, despite an opinion issued by New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas suggesting New Mexico will have a limited role in licensing the project.

New Mexico Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-36), who chairs the New Mexico Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Committee said Balderas’ opinion was informative but did not preclude lawmakers from preventing the facility from operating.

The committee convened in May to study the project proposed by New Jersey-based Holtec International, and held its third meeting on Wednesday at University of New Mexico-Los Alamos.

Opposed to the project, Steinborn said state lawmakers owe their constituents a full review of the proposal.

“I think it’s kind of a troubling deficiency in the government if the state doesn’t have to give consent to have something like this foisted upon it,” he said. “The State of New Mexico owes it to the people to look at every aspect of it.”

In Balderas’ response to multiple questions asked by Steinborn, he cited numerous past cases that Balderas said created a precedent that state governments have almost no role in federal licensing for nuclear facilities.

He said the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has the sole authority to license the facility, and the state’s authority would likely begin once it went into operation, providing some recourse if something goes wrong.

“While it is abundantly clear that the state cannot license or otherwise directly regulate interim storage facilities, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that state tort law can provide a remedy for injuries suffered as a result of nuclear plant operation,” Balderas wrote.

But Steinborn said he and the committee intended to make their voices heard well before the plant could go into operation.

He said even if the federal NRC does issue Holtec the needed license, the state could fight back by blocking utilities and infrastructure such as water and transportation access – cutting off the facility’s ability to operate.

“There’s other issues that are not part of licensure,” Steinborn said. “There’s clearly a lot of concerns over infrastructure deficiencies.”

New Mexico Rep. Cathrynn Brown (R-55), who represents Carlsbad and Eddy County and sits on the committee, said Balderas’ opinion further validates that the NRC’s oversight is sufficient and the state’s role in nuclear regulation is limited.

“The analysis done by the Attorney General’s office confirms that licensing of nuclear facilities is the domain of the federal government, not the states,” Brown said. “This point has been made a number of times in hearings of our Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Committee, so the AG’s analysis is not a surprise.”

John Heaton, chair of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance questioned Steinborn’s motivation when the senator challenged the facility Heaton said would bring many lucrative job opportunities to southeast New Mexico.

“I can’t understand why the State of New Mexico would want to stop a project that creates good, high-paying jobs. It doesn’t make sense,” Heaton said. “We’re the only state that hasn’t recovered from the depression of 2008, and it’s because of attitudes like that.”

Heaton argued that the NRC’s approval would signal a safe, productive project and would not require much state oversight.

“Through congressional action, (the NRC) was given the authority over managing nuclear materials in the private sector,” he said. “They take that responsibility very seriously.

“I don’t think there is a major role for the State. It’s preempted by the NRC.

In recent months the NRC hosted numerous meetings to solicit public comment from residents across the state in developing an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project.

The public comment period closed on July 30, and the NRC hopes to bring a draft EIS for further public comment in summer 2019.

Meanwhile, the city councils for New Mexico’s two biggest cities: Albuquerque and Las Cruces voted this summer to oppose Holtec’s transportation of the waste through their communities.

Steinborn said most of the attendees he saw at the meetings were against the facility.

“It’s not an exciting proposition for most people to live near or in the state where all the country’s high-level waste is,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem to make sense to New Mexico. It’s not just about where the waste goes, it’s the end game.”

That end could mean permanent storage of the waste in New Mexico, Steinborn worried, as a permanent repository in Yucca Mountain stalled after state lawmakers opposed the project and blocked the necessary utilities.

He said the waste should continue to be stored at the generator sites – many near large bodies of water and high population areas – until disposal is possible.

“There could be better options,” Steinborn said. “There is an effort to pressure New Mexico, that it’s New Mexico’s patriotic duty. That’s kind of insulting. If it’s a patriotic duty, they should put it in their backyard.”

He pointed to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), built near Carlsbad as a permanent repository for low-level transuranic nuclear waste – where a drum of waste ruptured in 2014 and led to the plant’s four-year closure.

Even the soundest plans can fail, Steinborn said.

“People were potentially exposed to radiation all because of human error,” he said of the incident at WIPP. “This is a much higher magnitude. This is a different animal. It’s easy to conflate it with WIPP, and that’s why I think some people have become complacent.”

The differences between WIPP and the Holtec proposal could keep Holtec from coming to fruition, said Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center.

Unlike WIPP, which is allowed specifically by the federal Land Withdrawal Act, Hancock argued the Department of Energy is barred by federal law to contract with a private company for consolidated interim storage (CIS) of the spent nuclear fuel.

“They’re trying to change the law,” Hancock said of Holtec officials. “My organization and many others are saying ‘No. Do not change the law.'”

That view is shared by the majority of the state, at least those who commented, Hancock said.

“The state should represent its population,” he said. “In most of the state, folks who think it’s a good thing are in the minority. Some representatives in southeast New Mexico are saying their constituents think it’s a good idea. They’re definitely far from the majority.

“They’re saying the people of New Mexico support this. That is clearly, on the record, not true.”


Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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