New Mexico senators block nuclear oversight bill amid proposal to store waste near Carlsbad

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

New Mexico senators blocked a proposal to expand the State’s oversight authority on nuclear waste facilities to include high-level waste held at privately-owned facilities.

Senate Bill 95 would add to the authority of Radioactive Waste Consultation Task Force, a state agency formed originally to review the development of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant – a federally-owned repository for low-level nuclear waste near Carlsbad.

It was intended to provide stronger State oversight for a project proposed by Holtec International, a nuclear technology company, to temporarily store high-level spent nuclear fuel rods at a facility near Carlsbad and Hobbs.

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Holtec would own and operate that facility that would see the nuclear waste shipped in from generator sites across the country.

SB 95 was voted down Monday on the Senate Floor, 16-25.

Sponsor Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-36) called the vote “misguided” but said the State would still have some say in the Holtec project as the State of New Mexico was a cooperating agency with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the government body presently reviewing Holtec’s license application for the facility.

More:Bill expanding New Mexico's nuclear oversight clears Senate committee amid Holtec proposal

An environmental impact statement was expected to be released this spring for the NRC’s review, and public input.

New Mexico Sen. Jeff Steinborn

“The fortunate thing is the (State) administration is a cooperating agency with the NRC,” Steinborn said. “So, while I think it was a misguided vote, clearly there’s a lot of support to look out for New Mexico and New Mexicans. The administration continues to be on the forefront to evaluate it with the NRC.”

Steinborn said during hearings in the Legislature, Holtec misled lawmakers by claiming the company would be responsible if there was incident at the facility or along the rail routes bringing the waste in to New Mexico.

More:Nuclear waste site near Carlsbad opposed by New Mexico House committee vote

He said the proposal contained no funding for emergency response should an incident occur, and worried local communities would be forced to be solely responsible.

“I was extremely disturbed to see Holtec mislead the Legislature as to liability for local communities,” Steinborn said. “They said they would step up to that, but there’s no mechanism to do so. That raises serious questions about their credibility.”

John Heaton, chair of the Eddy/Lea Energy Alliance addresses the crowd during a public forum on a proposed nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad and Hobbs, April 7, 2018 at the Carlsbad Public Library.

John Heaton, chair of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a group formed by Eddy and Lea counties and the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs to develop and promote the project, said the bill and House Memorial 21 which if passed would see the New Mexico House formerly opposed the transportation and storage of high-level waste in New Mexico, were based on “fear mongering” and “hyperbole.”

More:WIPP putting the final touches on new panel to hold nuclear waste near Carlsbad

He said the added oversight from SB 95 was not needed, nor was the State capable of providing an analysis comparable to the NRC’s.

Heaton argued that up to 30,000 shipments of high-level waste across the world had occurred without incident, and that Holtec’s consolidated interim storage (CIS) technology was provably safe.

“The NRC was given total responsibility for licensing nuclear facilities. It’s way beyond the State of New Mexico to analyze and give an opinion,” Heaton said. “The cost of doing that would be several millions of dollars. There’s no appropriation in the bill.”

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He pointed to a series of May 2019 meetings in which several environmental and nuclear watchdog groups presented formal contentions to the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.

The Board denied that any of the contentions had merit or standing in the proceedings.

“If (oversight) is going to be done it needs to be unbiased, not a political opinion,” Heaton said. “What’s frightening is if they make it into a political statement because the basis for all the hyperbole going on in the State is created by the sponsor.”

More:Will the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad store nuclear waste until 2052?

A cut away of a cask used by Holtec international to transport spent nuclear fuel

Heaton argued that even if the transportation or storage casks were cracked or breached, no radioactive material could leak out, as he said opponents have claimed, because the waste is made of ceramic pellets that would stay in place even during a rupture.

“The idea that you’re going to contaminate all this land is just not correct,” Heaton said. “There will be no release of material. That pellet cannot get out of there. I don’t think anyone objects to oversight, but it needs to be scientific.”

Don Hancock, nuclear waste program director at the Southwest Research and Information Center and a vocal opponent of the Holtec project, said he wasn’t concerned about Monday’s vote because he doesn’t believe the Holtec project will ever happen.

More:Department of Energy selects nuclear waste facility in West Texas to store elemental mercury

Hancock pointed to opposition voiced by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham who last year called the project “economic malpractice” as she feared it could disrupt New Mexico fossil fuel and agriculture industries in the southeast, and contentions expressed by State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard.

“I think it’s clear that the state will take an active role in this process,” Hancock said. “The task force would be formal structure. It’s not like the State isn’t going to be able to express its opposition through the governor and State Land Office.”

A nuclear waste site in Utah was licensed, but State officials were able to prevent its opening in 2006, proving, Handcock said, that states do have recourse to prevent such facilities despite the actions of the NRC.

“A license doesn’t necessarily give you the ability to do anything,” he said.

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Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.