March 17, 2023

Governor wastes no time, signs bill limiting storage of high-level nuclear waste


New Mexico could become home to nuclear waste generated at nearly 90 nuclear power plants across the country.

Just hours after the Legislature passed a bill limiting the storage of high-level nuclear waste in New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the bill into law.

The rest of this story continues as originally written below.

Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, highlighted the various nuclear projects that New Mexico has had over the decades as he urged his colleagues to pass a bill to prohibit the storage of high level nuclear waste without state consent and without a national permanent repository in place.

The House voted 35-28 to pass SB 53 on Friday, sending the bill to the governor’s desk.

This bill comes as a company, Holtec International, is seeking to build a temporary storage location for nuclear waste from power plants throughout the country. Currently, the waste is stored at the power plants.

McQueen said that New Mexico has played a key role in the atomic era, starting with the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bomb. He said the legacy pollution and health issues from that role continues to be present to this day, highlighting Tularosa Basin downwinders and unremediated uranium mines on Navajo Nation. 

McQueen also pointed to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, which stores transuranic waste that is not considered high-level waste. 

He said now Holtec wants to bring all of the high-level radioactive waste from across the country to New Mexico.

“New Mexico has done its part and we should not be the nation’s dumping ground,” he said.

There are some concerns that New Mexico may not have the authority to enforce the law. The federal Atomic Energy Act gives the authority to regulate nuclear waste to the federal government.

But McQueen argued that the state doesn’t have the authority to specify the depth at which nuclear waste must be buried or the thickness of the walls, but it does have authority to protect its economy, roads and environment. That is what he said SB 53 does.

He said the proposal “benefits a few people. It damages the entire state.”

Rep. Cynthia Borrego, D-Albuquerque, said that the waste will be transported throughout the state and, because of that, the proposed facility will impact the entire state and not just the communities that are pushing for the facility to come to their area.

Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, noted that former Gov. Susana Martinez provided Holtec International with a letter of support for the project.

McQueen said that expressions of interest from seven or eight years ago, including a House memorial, do not qualify as current consent from the state to the storage.

Brown said that the method to store nuclear waste that would be used has been used for 30 years without an incident. Furthermore, she said that the facility will provide a way for the Permian Basin communities to diversify their economy that is currently reliant on oil and gas production.

Brown said nuclear energy is important because it provides clean, baseload power.

She said consolidating storage of nuclear waste at a single facility will save the federal government about $20 million annually.

Brown highlighted that elected officials in Lea and Eddy counties continue to support Holtec’s proposal.

There are very few nuclear power plants in the intermountain west, which means the majority of the waste will be coming from the eastern United States via rail.

Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, asked about a similar proposal for a facility in Texas and asked about Texas’ position. McQueen said that Texas opposes the proposal for storage of high-level nuclear waste.

Texas passed a law prohibiting storage of high-level nuclear waste in 2021.