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NM should be scientific leader on nuclear issues

I support the Journal’s (March 20) editorial, “NRC is right to put science before politics.” That editorial endorsed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decision that the proposed interim used fuel storage site near Carlsbad and Hobbs presents minimal impacts on land, industry and public health. I learned first-hand how the NRC reaches decisions – based on sound science. From both my service at the NRC and as an assistant secretary at the DOE, with responsibility for all the nation’s nuclear energy programs, I agree that the NRC decision is correct.

New Mexico has a corner on the nation’s nuclear expertise and, therefore, I’m concerned when a decision is made at the Governor’s Office to argue against science and bow to politics. That political illogic has embroiled and endangered the nation during the coronavirus pandemic. We ignored science and followed the political path for too long in arguing the pandemic was a hoax or worse.

Good science stands on its own merits and I applaud the N.M. response to COVID-19. The decision of the state on the virus was correct and, on interim storage, it was wrong.

We have four great nuclear facilities in New Mexico: Los Alamos, Sandia, WIPP and the Urenco USA enrichment facility. Those four unquestionably share the expertise to handle a simple interim storage site – and an interim storage site is a very simple, safe nuclear installation. With the superb transportation record at WIPP, we clearly know that the risks of shipment of used fuel can be readily managed.

Attempts to move to interim storage during the Obama administration, which I helped lead, were consistently blocked in Congress. Yet the nation needs a solution for the used fuel that is now stored at many sites across America. New Mexico will benefit from providing good jobs at the interim storage site, while making a vital contribution to nuclear energy in the nation.

Nuclear energy provides safe, clean, dispatchable power for the nation. It currently accounts for about 20% of our total electricity and over half of our clean electricity. Countless studies are showing that a reliance solely on intermittent renewables will not suffice to reliably power a modern grid and support our high technology industrial society with clean energy. New Mexico should be building on its nuclear expertise and encouraging introduction of the new generation of reactors – ones that cannot melt down and that represent a new gold standard for safety. These new reactors, coupled with expanded renewables to provide 100% clean energy for the state, would be a real step forward for New Mexico and its leadership in the nation’s quest for clean energy.

In addition, an argument for 100% renewables ignores the fact that this technology does not exist today or in the foreseeable future. It requires storage technology that doesn’t exist and will have to be underpinned by dirty fossil energy. And estimates of the cost to seek 100% renewables, such as recent work at MIT, show the expenses of seeking that solution now are prohibitive.

True respect for science-based solutions in New Mexico would lead to support for interim storage, would validate the state’s path on containment of COVID-19 and would also abandon pipe dreams or political wishes for 100% renewable solutions for the state’s grid.

Let’s embrace good science through decisions at the state level that move New Mexico further into scientific leadership for the nation and the world.

Peter Lyons served as a commissioner of the U.S. NRC from 2005-2009 and as Science Advisor to U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., from 1997-2005. He also served for over 30 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory and is now retired in Golden, Colo.


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