February 14, 2023

Bill to require state approval for storage of nuclear waste passes Senate

The state Senate passed a bill on Monday that would require the state’s consent to storage of nuclear waste and would require a federal depository to be operating prior to storage of high level nuclear waste in New Mexico.

SB 53 is sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces. It comes in response to efforts by Holtec International to construct a temporary storage facility near Carlsbad where nuclear waste from power plants across the country could be kept until a permanent federal depository could be established.

The bill passed on a 21-13 vote. 

But some people have concerns that New Mexico could become the de facto storage location of nuclear waste and a permanent repository will never be established. Those were among the concerns that Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, expressed during the debate on the Senate floor.

Republicans emphasized local support for Holtec’s proposal in Eddy and Lea counties, but Steinborn said the nuclear waste would be transported through communities throughout New Mexico—including Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties—as well as through communities in other states that also have concerns about the potential impacts should an incident occur that resulted in a spill.

One of the big questions surrounding the bill is what is known as federal preemption. That means New Mexico may not have the authority to stop storage of nuclear waste as the federal government is tasked with overseeing such materials.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said he expects that SB 53 will be challenged in federal court should it become law. Nevertheless, Cervantes voted in favor of the bill.

“Ultimately, we’ll figure out where the state’s authority begins and ends,” he said.

Cervantes also spoke about the amount of state money that was needed to clean up the Carlsbad brine well.

“It’s not always just local consequences when things don’t go well,” he said.

Sen. Antonio “Moe” Maestas of Albuquerque was among the Democrats who voted against the bill. He spoke about New Mexico’s history with nuclear energy, including weapons testing.

“We’ve sacrificed enough in regards to this industry,” he said.

At the same time, he expressed concerns that the bill is a “not-in-my-backyard” or NIMBY measure and about the state’s authority to implement such a prohibition.

SB 53 now heads to the House of Representatives.