A proposal for New Mexico to house one of the world’s largest nuclear waste storage facilities has drawn opposition from nearly every indigenous nation in the state. Nuclear Issues Study Group co-founder and Diné organizer Leona Morgan told state legislators last week the project, if approved, would perpetuate a legacy of nuclear colonialism against New Mexico’s indigenous communities and people of color.
Holtec International, a private company specializing in spent nuclear fuel storage and management, applied for a license from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to construct and operate the facility in southeastern New Mexico.
The proposal, which has been in the works since 2011, would see high-level waste generated at nuclear power plants across the country transported to New Mexico for storage at the proposed facility along the Lea-Eddy county line between Hobbs and Carlsbad. Holtec representatives say the facility would be a temporary solution to the nation’s growing nuclear waste problem, but currently there is no federal plan to build a permanent repository for the waste.
Legislators, activists and residents alike share concerns about the proposals. Some fear the “interim” storage facility could become a de facto permanent storage facility if no other repository is built; others question the site selection for a nuclear facility so close to oil and gas activity in the Permian Basin. Increased transport of high-level radioactive waste across the state could also lead to potentially dangerous nuclear releases, leaving impacted communities responsible for emergency responses.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham told U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in a letter that she opposes the project, while state Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard voiced safety concerns with the proposal. Several state industry associations, state legislators, and residents also oppose the project.
Morgan briefed members of the Legislature’s interim Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee on how the proposal fits into a wider pattern of negligence and environmental racism on behalf of the federal government towards one of the United States’ poorest majority-minority states.
“New Mexico doesn’t make the waste, why should we take the waste?” Morgan said. “What we’re advocating for is not a temporary, band-aid solution, but something more scientifically sound. The waste does have to go somewhere. However, storing it in New Mexico temporarily is not the right idea. It’s not safe; it’s not supported by the local communities; and New Mexico does not want it.”
“We see this as environmental racism and perpetuating nuclear colonialism that is going to result in a continuation of a slow genocide,” she said.
A ‘temporary’ solution to the Yucca Mountain problem
The federal government spent years searching for a location to store nuclear waste. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 designated a deep underground repository as the national strategy for permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel. After a lengthy back-and-forth between federal agencies and scientists over the parameters needed to safely and permanently store spent nuclear fuel in perpetuity, the government settled on the Yucca Mountain site, a volcanic structure located in Nevada, as the repository to receive high-level waste generated by nuclear power plants across the country.
Local communities and state lawmakers in Nevada, along with mostly Democrats in Congress, strongly opposed the project. Former President Barack Obama campaigned and made good on a promise to shutter the project, establishing the now-defunct Blue Ribbon Commission to explore alternatives for dealing with the waste.
So far, no alternative solution has been proposed, nor are there any plans to build another permanent storage facility anywhere else in the country. Meanwhile, nuclear power utilities across the country have sued the federal government over a breach of contract for failing to establish a permanent repository for the waste.
“That’s why I’m here,” Holtec program manager Ed Mayer told the committee during a presentation earlier that day.
Holtec’s proposal would see the majority of high-level nuclear waste in the U.S. transported to a consolidated interim storage facility located in southeastern New Mexico. If licensed, the facility would house up to 100,000 metric tons of high-level waste at capacity — more nuclear waste than currently exists in the country — for up to 40 years, while the federal government either re-opens Yucca Mountain or establishes a new deep repository to permanently store the waste.
But according to New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, if the federal government fails to establish a permanent repository, the state’s options are limited.
“The simple answer is that federal law does not appear to afford the state any legal recourse,” Balderas said in a 2018 letter to state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, who sits on the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee. Balderas also said that state approval is not a prerequisite to the licensure of an interim storage facility.
The federal government “does have a duty to establish a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain,” Balderas said, “but, as a result of political uncertainty and a lack of real progress over the years, there simply is no telling when Yucca Mountain or some other permanent facility will be constructed.”
Nuclear colonialism and legacy waste
Nuclear colonialism, a term first coined by environmentalist Winona LaDuke and activist Ward Churchill, describes a systematic dispossession of indigenous lands, the exploitation of cultural resources, and a history of subjugation and oppression of indigenous peoples by a government to further nuclear production of energy and proliferation of weapons.
“All of the impacts from nuclear colonialism can be simplified by explaining it as environmental racism,” Morgan told state legislators last week. She pointed to the health and environmental consequences of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation during the last century.
“My family lives in areas where there was past uranium mining. We’re still dealing with the legacy of all of the mining that fuelled World War II and the Cold War,” Morgan said. “This legacy is still unaddressed — not just in New Mexico, but in the entire country. For that reason, my concern is the health of our people, our environment.”
Morgan explained to the committee that Diné people’s relationship to the landscape of the Navajo Nation goes beyond what’s recognized by most state and federal laws.
“We do not believe we are separate from the environment,” Morgan said. “We are not here to protect the environment as land and as mountains, but as living, breathing entities.”
“If there were to be any shipments that could possibly have an accident in these areas, they would severely impact not just the human populations, but also the cultural resources of these areas, which include medicines and our spiritual deities that live on these mountains,” she said.
State Rep. Angelica Rubio, who chairs the committee, also acknowledged the troubling nuclear history of the state.
“There’s some historical trauma that exists in our state,” the Las Cruces Democrat said at the conclusion of the Holtec presentation. “It’s important to recognize that many communities and many of our land and water and our species have all been directly impacted by nuclear at one point in our history.”
Nearly all of the state’s indigenous nations have formally opposed the project. Most recently, the All Pueblo Council of Governors adopted a resolution opposing the project, citing lack of tribal consultation as a key concern.
“It’s quite significant, because it’s all of the pueblos of the state,” Morgan said. “It’s very important, because of the amount of history and cultural resources that they are also trying to protect. I’m very thankful to them for passing such a resolution.”
Morgan argued that the proposed facility, should it be approved by the NRC, may also infringe on the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation.
The Holtec proposal would see nuclear waste transported via railway to the facility in the southeast corner of the state. The Navajo Nation is located in the northwest corner of the state, but one major railway traverses the boundaries of the nation. Depending on where the nuclear waste is coming from, some of those shipments may travel across Navajo land.
Such transportation would be illegal under Navajo Nation law, Morgan said. “The Navajo Nation has passed what is called the Radioactive Materials Transportation Act of 2012, which prohibits the transport of all radioactive materials throughout the Navajo Nation,” she said.
The federal government, on the other hand, adopted in 2016 a declaration of the rights of Indigenous peoples, as a member of the Organization of American States. The declaration states indigenous peoples “have the right to promote, develop and maintain their institutional structures and distinctive customers, spirituality, traditions, procedures, practices and, in the cases where they exist, juridical systems or customs, in accordance with international human rights standards.” It also states that “indigenous law and legal systems shall be recognized and respected by the national, regional, and international legal systems.”
“The Radioactive Transportation Act is a law of our Navajo Nation,” she said. “The United States is subject to our Navajo Nation law and that it should be respected. And New Mexico, as a state, should be aware that this is our law. We ask for your help as legislators to ensure that our sovereignty is respected.”
Morgan pointed to the federal government’s management of legacy uranium waste located on the Navajo Nation.
“The [Department of Energy] currently has two sites in New Mexico — one in Shiprock and one in Churchrock. Their preferred alternative in Shiprock for clean up is no action, and they have cited, ‘let mother nature take its course, let mother nature take care of the mess,’” she said.
“If that’s an example of how the federal government treats us, I would ask that we prevent any future risk to our state,” she said.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story included a quote from Leona Morgan saying the Department of Energy has proposed “no action” as the preferred alternative for clean up for a site in Shiprock and a site in Churchrock. Morgan later clarified her comments to NM Political Report that the DOE has proposed “no action” only for the site at Shiprock. The text has been edited to reflect the correction.