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Legislation to oppose the transportation and storage of high-level nuclear waste in New Mexico cleared a State House committee as Holtec International continues to develop a plan to store such waste at a proposed facility near the Eddy-Lea county line.
House Memorial 21 was introduced by New Mexico Rep. Matthew McQueen (D-50) intended to prevent the controversial proposal that could see up to 100,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods stored on a temporary basis at the site in southeast New Mexico for at least 40 years.
It passed the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee on a 8-5 vote, Feb. 1., and was awaiting scheduling for further action as of Monday.
Holtec, a nuclear technology company based in New Jersey, applied for a license to build the facility through the federal Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC) in 2017, and the application was accepted for review a year later.
Since then, numerous environmentalist groups, state officials and industry leaders voiced their opposition to the idea, despite support from local leaders in Carlsbad and other state lawmakers.
During a hearing McQueen said that although the project was labeled for “interim” or temporary storage, it would likely become a permanent waste emplacement as no permanent repository exists.
He said the permanent storage of such waste in southeast New Mexico could endanger public safety and multiple industries including agriculture and oil and gas in the area.
“It’s amazing how something that temporary pretty much becomes permanent. I believe New Mexico should not be the nation’s nuclear waste dumping ground,” McQueen said. “The Holtec company is talking about a big investment in the area, I get that. And there will be temporary jobs and investment and all the ancillary benefits.
“I also believe this is a temporary benefit for really long-term or permanent liability for Mew Mexico. The facility threatens our existing economic activity, not only in the area but statewide.”
John Heaton, chair of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, the organization that devised the plan and sought out Holtec for its development and operation, said the location selected – about 30 miles east of Carlsbad and 30 miles west of Hobbs – was ideal for its distance from dense population areas and geological stability.
He said ELEA’s efforts to commission the project followed a recommendation from the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future – a federal agency created under the administration of former-President Barrack Obama – for consolidated interim storage facilities (CISF) to be used until a permanent repository was available.
The concept, Heaton said, was to remove high-level nuclear waste from generator sites across the country that are usually near large populations and bodies of water.
Opposition to the project, he said, was based on fear instead of science.
“What concerns us is that many of the comments and assertions in this memorial are not accurate. They’re not scientifically based. They’re for the most part hyperbole,” Heaton said. “All of us have some innate fear. I respect that. People are afraid anytime you say the nuclear word. The fact is today it is very well handled and managed.”
He pointed to numerous nuclear facilities in New Mexico, including the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the southeast, along with Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories.
The presence of these other facilities in New Mexico, he said, should allay concerns for the safety of shipping the waste into the state, as they receive and send out shipments of their own.
“We are a very nuclear state. It surprising that we as a state that our population at large does not have more knowledge about nuclear materials and understand them more thoroughly,” Heaton said to the committee.
“That is a real problem, and it’s very difficult to overcome because nuclear materials were part of a bomb. We have this innate bias of anything nuclear, even though every one of you have probably had x-rays.”
Last year, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wrote a letter to the NRC and the U.S. Department of Energy opposing the project, calling it “economic malpractice” for the potential disruption of oil and gas and agriculture in the region.
Sarah Cottrell Propst, cabinet secretary of the State’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) testified to the committee that the memorial was consistent with the Lujan Grisham’s stance.
“The memorial is consistent with a letter that the governor sent to the NRC and Secretary of Energy (Rick Perry) back in June expressing that the interim storage of high-level radioactive waste poses a significant and unacceptable risk to New Mexicans,” Propst said.
But Carlsbad Deputy City Manager Wendy Austin touted the economic benefits of the project as creating jobs in the region.
She pointed to a similar facility proposed by Waste Control Specialists (WCS) just across the Texas-New Mexico state line in Andrews, Texas.
Austin suggested New Mexico capitalize on the opportunity instead of letting it go to the Lone Star State.
The WCS would be two miles from Eunice and 17 miles from Hobbs, Austin said, while the Holtec facility would be 30 miles from the nearest city.
“You need to know without a doubt that there will be one or more interim storage facilities across the United States,” she said. “You must decide if you want the facility to be just across the border in Texas or should N.M. benefit from this facility.
“Please do not risk eliminating potentially good paying jobs in New Mexico and please continue to support southeast New Mexico.”
Dave McCoy with Citizen Action New Mexico countered that while the project could have some economic benefit, it would also add a dire and long-term risk to the State.
“The entire idea of interim is based on the supposition that there is going to be somewhere else that you’re going to put these wastes. And yet, there’s no plan for that,” he said.
“These wastes are going to last for millions and millions of years. They are extremely toxic. The idea is to dispose of these in an area where there are gas and mineral resources. This is really not what New Mexico needs.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, email@example.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
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