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Nuclear waste storage plan draws criticism

Plans by a New Jersey-based company to temporarily store spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors in the New Mexico desert is running into more political trouble, as some of the state’s top elected officials are raising red flags.

An illustration depicts a planned interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in southeastern New Mexico as officials announce plans to pursue the project in 2015. (Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press)

Congresswoman Deb Haaland became the latest member of the delegation to weigh in Friday, sending a letter to the U.S. Energy Department and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The first-term Democratic lawmaker suggested existing railways weren’t built to withstand the weight of the special casks that would be used to transport the high-level waste from sites around the country to southeastern New Mexico.

Haaland said there are no plans for new construction or renovations as part of the project proposed by Holtec International and that cities and states shouldn’t bear the cost of the infrastructure improvements needed to ensure safe transportation.

“I believe such a facility poses too great a risk to the health and safety of New Mexicans, our economy and our environment,” Haaland wrote.

Holtec is seeking a 40-year license from federal regulators to build what it has described as a state-of-the-art complex near Carlsbad.

Holtec executives say the project is needed because the federal government has yet to find a permanent solution for dealing with the tons of spent fuel building up at nuclear power plants.

Members of a U.S. House subcommittee visited Southern California earlier this month for a hearing that centered on the need for a permanent disposal option and the 3.5 million pounds of nuclear waste stranded at a defunct nuclear power plant in that state.

The topic of storing nuclear waste will be on the agenda again when the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee meets next week.

The development of a proposed long-term storage site at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was halted during the Obama administration, although the Trump administration has moved to restart the licensing process despite stiff resistance in Nevada.

Haaland in her letter echoed the concerns of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján. Without a permanent repository, they say the waste could end up stuck in the state indefinitely.

“There must be an open and transparent process that allows for input on what’s best for our entire state,” Heinrich said.

Congressman Lujan said broad support from the state, local communities and any affected Native American communities should be a requirement of any interim storage site.

Holtec spokeswoman Joy Russell said Friday the company appreciates the views of the elected officials and will continue to work with local leaders to ensure it meets all regulatory requirements.

In her letter, Haaland pointed to past studies done by the Energy Department when it was considering Yucca Mountain. She said modeling predicted rail accidents at a rate of 1 in 10,000 shipments.

She also said the agency has found that a severe accident involving one cask of radioactive waste has the potential to contaminate dozens of square miles and result in hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs.

State and industry officials also have concerns about potential effects on oil and gas development, as Holtec’s proposed site is located within the Permian Basin – one of the world’s most prolific energy production regions.