High-level spent nuclear fuel would be prohibited from being stored in New Mexico if lawmakers pass a pair of bills introduced during this year's legislative session.
The bicameral effort comes as Holtec International proposed to build and operate a facility in southeast New Mexico to temporarily hold spent nuclear fuel rods from generator sites across the U.S.
Sponsored by New Mexico Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-36), a frequent critic of the Holtec project, Senate Bill 54 would prohibit the kind of waste Holtec planned to store in New Mexico. It's twin bill, House Bill 127, was sponsored by Rep. Matthew McQueen (D-50).
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The state does have a facility for low-level waste. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is operated by the U.S. Department of Energy in the same region and permitted by the State of New Mexico
The Holtec site recently received approval from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which recommended Holtec be issued a license to build the facility and a final decision was expected this year.
Holtec would hold up to 100,000 metric tons of the waste in total on an interim basis until a permanent repository was available.
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The U.S. does not presently have a permanent repository for the waste after such a project at Yucca Mountain, Nevada stalled amid opposition from leaders in that state.
In New Mexico, high-ranking state officials voiced their own opposition to the proposal with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham calling the project "economic malpractice" as she worried it could risk nearby oil and gas and agriculture industries in the region.
Last year, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas filed a lawsuit against the NRC arguing its license recommendation ignored the environmental and safety impacts the site could have if built and operated.
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SB 54 was awaiting a hearing in the Senate Conservation Committee, while HB 127 was to be considered in the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
Both bills added language to New Mexico's Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Act that "no one" will store high-level waste or spent nuclear fuel in New Mexico, adding to a clause that already required state consent before such a facility could be built.
The bill would also amend requirements of the state's Radioactive Waste Consultation Task Force to include private nuclear facilities like Holtec's in its purview for analysis and require the committee meet at least annually.
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"No person shall store or dispose of radioactive materials or radioactive waste (or spent fuel) in a disposal facility until the state has concurred in the creation of the disposal facility, except as specifically preempted by federal law; provided that spent fuel and high-level waste shall not be stored or disposed of in the state; and provided further that the state or a political subdivision of the state shall not issue or certify a permit for the construction or operation of a disposal facility for spent fuel or high-level waste," read the language of the bills.
Local leaders in southeast New Mexico opposed the bill, believing the Holtec project was a safe way to diversify the region's economy and insulate it from future up and downswings in the oil and gas markets.
Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway, Eddy County Commission Chairman Steven McCutcheon, along with Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb and Lea County Commissioner Jonathan Sena signed letters to Lujan Grisham opposing each bill and asking that she not sign them into law if passed.
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The cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs and Eddy and Lea counties formed the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance which sited the project and recruited Holtec.
The leaders wrote that "consolidated interim storage" of nuclear waste was recommended by a commission created by the administration of former-President Barrack Obama that studied ways to address the U.S.' stockpile of nuclear waste.
They also asked to meet with Lujan Grisham to further express their support for the project and why it was safe.
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There were about 75 facilities around the country at nuclear power plants that were able to store the waste without incident, read the letter, and finding a solution for the waste would help support the nuclear power industry which the leaders contended was "carbon-free."
"We, the undersigned, are writing you to urge you to NOT put the Steinborn Bill on your call for the upcoming session of the legislature. Carlsbad and Hobbs as well as Lea and Eddy Counties remain resolute in their support for the Holtec interim storage facility because of the safety and security of the project," the letter read.
"In the absence of a disposal repository at this time, temporary, safe, secure Consolidated Interim Storage is required as a critical step in the final disposal process as recommended by President Obama's Blue-Ribbon Commission."
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During its construction and operation, the local leaders asserted the Holtec site would create up to 350 jobs for southeast New Mexico while bringing up to $3 billion in investments, an economic boon that would help support region despite its reliance on fossil fuels.
They also argued that with the growth in renewable energy and electric vehicle sectors, oil and gas could see declines in the future and growing nuclear waste storage in southeast New Mexico could protect local economies.
"While the oil and gas industry is very robust now, it is inevitable that with the number of electric vehicles on the road becoming larger and larger, the oil and gas industry will become smaller and smaller," the letter read.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
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