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Gov. slams planned nuclear waste storage site

A rendering of the proposed Holtec International underground spent nuclear fuel storage facility in southeast New Mexico. (Courtesy photo)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham came out swinging Friday against a planned facility to store spent nuclear fuel in southeast New Mexico, saying it would be “economic malpractice” to open such a site in an oil-rich region that’s also home to agricultural operations.

In a letter sent to U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Kristine Svinicki, Lujan Grisham said the interim storage of high-level radioactive waste – as proposed by Holtec International – poses significant risk to New Mexico’s environment and economy.

“Any disruption of agricultural or oil and gas activities as a result of a perceived or actual incident would be catastrophic to New Mexico, and any steps toward siting such a project could cause a decrease in investment in two of our state’s biggest industries,” the first-term Democratic governor wrote in her letter.

She also said several industry groups – including the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association and the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau – had sent her letters opposing the project.

However, it’s unclear whether Lujan Grisham’s opposition to the facility will ultimately halt the project, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is already reviewing Holtec’s application for a 40-year license and public hearings were held in Albuquerque earlier this year.

The proposed site was backed by the administration of Lujan Grisham’s predecessor, Republican ex-Gov. Susana Martinez. It would be located between Hobbs and Carlsbad and would temporarily house the nation’s spent nuclear fuel until a permanent repository could be built.

Backers say the $2.4 billion underground storage site – housed on roughly 960 acres – would safely store waste building up at nuclear power plants while also creating roughly 240 jobs.

During the public hearings held earlier this year, Holtec International officials dismissed concerns raised by environmental groups of the possibility of nuclear fuel leaks, saying necessary safeguards would be taken to avoid such a scenario.

Specifically, the company says the four-layer casks that would hold the spent fuel would be made of thick steel and lead, and transported on a designated train with guards and guns, according to the Associated Press.

But Lujan Grisham said transporting the spent fuel could place a financial burden on both the state and local communities.

“Transporting material of this nature requires both well-maintained infrastructure and highly specialized emergency response equipment and personnel that can respond to an incident at the facility or on transit routes,” she said in her letter. “The state of New Mexico cannot be expected to support these activities.”

New Mexico is already home to several national laboratories and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground repository for radioactive waste located near Carlsbad that was shut down after a February 2014 radiation leak. It reopened in early 2017.

The new facility would be located in the Permian Basin, which has seen skyrocketing oil production levels in recent years. Both Eddy and Lea counties are now ranked among the 10 highest oil-producing counties in the country, according to Lujan Grisham.

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