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Regulators recommend license for spent nuclear fuel storage in southern New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE – There are no environmental reasons that would prevent a New Jersey-based company from building a multibillion-dollar facility in southern New Mexico to temporarily store tons of spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants around the nation, U.S. regulators said Wednesday.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its final environmental review of the project, marking a key step forward as Holtec International pursues a license to build and operate the facility. A safety review is still pending.

New Mexico’s governor and members of the state’s congressional delegation have been vocal opponents of the project, arguing that the state stands to become a sacrifice zone if more nuclear waste is shipped in from elsewhere. They have raised concerns about the failure of the federal government to identify a permanent solution for dealing with the radioactive material that has been stacking up at nuclear power plants.

The commission already granted a license for a similar storage facility in West Texas, but top officials in that state continue to fight the effort in court and through possible legislative means.

U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced legislation earlier this year to prohibit federal money from being used to carry out any activities at private interim storage sites.

Heinrich said Wednesday that New Mexicans didn’t sign up for this type of interim storage in their backyards.

“This decision from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reinforces why we need to find a permanent repository and the importance of consent-based siting. Private facilities shouldn’t be railroading states,” he said.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in a statement accused the commission of “choosing profit over public interest.” She also called on the state Legislature to deliver a proposal that would protect New Mexico from becoming the de facto home of the country’s spent nuclear fuel.

The facility in New Mexico initially would store up to 8,680 metric tons of used uranium fuel. Future expansion could make room for as many as 10,000 canisters of spent fuel over six decades.

Local officials from adjacent communities have praised the project for its potential to bring jobs and boost economic development in a region that already is home to one of the world’s most productive oil and gas deposits, the U.S. government’s only underground nuclear dump for defense-related waste and a uranium enrichment plant.

Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway and Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb said in a joint statement issued by Holtec that the commission’s environmental review verified the safety of the project.

Holtec CEO Kris Singh said the storage facility will have no impact on the local oil, gas or potash mining operations or the lives of local farmers and ranchers.

“We believe that aggregating used fuel from 75 dispersed sites across the country is both a national security imperative and an essential predicate for the rise of renascent nuclear energy to meet our nation’s clean energy goals,” Singh said.

Despite opposition from environmentalists, the Biden administration has pointed to nuclear power as essential to achieving its goals to create a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, nuclear reactors across the country produce more than 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste a year, with most of it remaining on-site because there’s nowhere else to put it. The federal government is paying to house the fuel, and the cost is expected to stretch into the tens of billions over the next decade, according to a review by independent government auditors.

Federal regulators in September granted a license for an interim storage facility in Andrews County, Texas. That facility is licensed to take up to 5,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods from power plants and more than 231 metric tons of other radioactive waste. Possible expansion could increase the total capacity to 40,000 metric tons of fuel, but additional regulatory approval would be needed.

After regulators approved that site, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted: “Texas will not become America’s nuclear waste dumping ground.”

In its federal appeals court challenge, Texas is arguing now that the NRC didn’t have authority to issue the license since Congress didn’t intend to grant such power to the commission.

Texas is pointing to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the court said that the Clean Air Act does not give the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming. Though the decision was specific to the EPA, it was in line with the majority’s skepticism of the power of regulatory agencies.