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Carlsbad Current-Argus

Bill to block nuclear waste in southeast New Mexico heads to House Floor for final vote

By Adrian Hedden, Carlsbad Current-Argus,

2023-03-14
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A bill intended as a roadblock to a proposed project to store spent nuclear fuel rods in southeast New Mexico passed its second committee vote in the New Mexico House of Representatives Monday and was likely headed next for a vote before the full chamber.

The 6-5 vote before the House Judiciary Committee was the second in the House and the fifth vote in support of Senate Bill 53 during this year’s legislative session.

Should SB 53 gain the support of the full House, it would likely next head to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

Opinion:Holtec International's vision for New Mexico

The bill would ban state agencies in New Mexico from issuing needed permits such as for groundwater discharge to a nuclear waste facility without consent from the State of New Mexico, and without a permanent repository available.

Such a facility does not exist in the U.S. after a project to build one at Yucca Mountain, Nevada was blocked by state officials in that state.

But Holtec International proposed the temporary storage site in an area near the Eddy-Lea County line, to hold the fuel rods temporarily until a repository becomes available.

The project was touted as an economic boon for the oil-dependent region to diversify the local economy, with Holtec contending it would mean a $3 billion capital investment in the region and more than 500 jobs during the construction and from associated facilities the company said it would build.

Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway, an ardent supporter of the project, voiced his opposition to the bill along with elected and business leaders from Carlsbad and the southeast region.

He pointed to resolutions supporting the Holtec project passed by Eddy and Lea counties.

Leaders from those counties and the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs formed the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, which recruited Holtec and signed an agreement for a third of the project’s revenue in exchange for promoting it.

“Very strong consent has been established for the Holtec project- this has included resolutions in support at the City and County level in Eddy and Lea Counties, as well as by their economic development organizations,” Janway said.

He said Holtec already invested $80 million during the project’s licensing process with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) which last year issued its final environmental impact statement (EIS), finding the facility would have minimal environmental impact and recommending a license be granted.

The NRC’s final decision on Holtec’s license was expected later this year.

It did previously issue a license for a similar, but smaller, facility in Andrews, Texas by Interim Storage Partners, despite opposition from Texas officials a bill passed by its legislature.

“With a strong history of consent and a strong safety basis, we would like to see the HOLTEC project move forward and encourage you to vote against this bill,” Janway said.

Support for the bill was voiced by environmental and advocacy groups from other regions of New Mexico, concerned that without a permanent repository for the waste, the Holtec site could become its “de-facto” final resting place.

“These rods will be transported through our communities,” said Camilla Feibelman with the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter. “We have a right to be known as the state of outdoor recreation, arts and culture. Not the nation’s nuclear waste dump.”

New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary James Kenney, along with a representative from the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department also supported the bill at the meeting.

“We are trying to always gain more accountability with these federal agencies, and we just don’t have it,” Kenney said. “I don’t think we’re setting a good precedent when there isn’t a permanent repository.”

Rep. Greg Nibert (R-59) of Chaves County said the project already saw years of analysis since Holtec submitted its application in 2017 and questioned why it should be blocked despite the NRC’s findings.

“We’re considering legislation that could undue years of work,” Nibert said. “At the last minute, we’re needing an emergency bill to deal with that? For what reason?”

Sponsor Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-36) of Las Cruces argued New Mexico communities, indigenous groups and others were ignored throughout the NRC’s process.

“We’ve been talking for years; we just haven’t been listened to,” Steinborn said. “We’re at zero hour with these guys getting a license. As New Mexicans have learned about this, they have strongly opposed this.”

Nibert countered that the Holtec project and others within the nuclear sector were ideal to produced needed job growth in the rural southeast region.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to diversify. I see tremendous opportunities in southeast New Mexico in energy, including nuclear energy,” he said. “These kinds of facilities will enhance our ability to attract bigger and more robust employment opportunities in the future.”

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

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