May 10, 2023

NRC issues a license for Holtec to store nuclear waste in New Mexico, state officials respond

Holtec International

A rendering of the HI-STORE consolidated interim storage facility, proposed to be built in Lea County to store nuclear waste from across the country.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued Holtec International a license on Tuesday that will allow the company to construct and operate a facility in southeast New Mexico that will temporarily store nuclear waste from power plants across the country.

The federal agency issued the license despite backlash from the state, including the passage of a new law that attempted to block the facility by requiring a federal permanent repository to be in operation before nuclear waste can be stored in New Mexico.

State Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, sponsored the law that attempts to block the project.

In a statement, Steinborn said the NRC’s decision to issue the license illustrates why the new law is so important.

“It’s time that our voice be heard and honored, and that this project be shut down,” he said.

Environmental groups and state lawmakers decried the NRC’s decision to issue the license.

“This is a bad idea, full stop. Placing a nuclear storage facility in the heart of oil and gas operations is a recipe for ecological disaster and unnecessarily puts New Mexicans at risk,” State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard said in a press statement. 

She said that “unelected bureaucrats in Washington” should not be able to “jam through this shaky proposal that will bring massive profits to an out-of-state company with a troubled safety record, while putting our people and environment in harm’s way.”

“Bottom line, the world’s most active oil and gas producing field is not the right place for a long-term nuclear waste storage site. Holtec needs to understand that New Mexico is not the nation’s dumping ground and should stop misleading the public about the dangers their proposal presents,” Garcia Richard said.

There are nearly 2,500 oil, gas or mineral extraction sites operated by 54 different entities within 10 miles of the site where Holtec plans to build the nuclear waste storage facility.

Kayley Shoup is an environmental activist from the Carlsbad area, near the planned site of the nuclear storage facility. 

“As Southeast New Mexicans continue to be a major fossil fuel provider for our country at the cost of our health and well being. We are now, once again, being tasked with storing the country’s nuclear waste,” she said.

The license allows Holtec to “receive, possess, transfer and store 500 canisters holding approximately 8,680 metric tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel for 40 years,” a press release from the NRC states.

Holtec intends to store up to 10,000 canisters at the facility in Lea County. That will require an additional 19 phases. Each expansion phase will require an amendment to the license that will include safety and environmental reviews.

New Mexico’s congressional delegation issued statements opposing the license on Tuesday.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat who serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said that the NRC “used ‘interim’ standards to approve indefinite nuclear storage in New Mexico.”

“No matter how many times NRC and Holtec use the word ‘interim,’ it doesn’t make it so. And the people left to pay the consequences will be New Mexicans,” he said. “Until there is a permanent repository for our nation’s spent nuclear fuel, no regulatory commission should be using ‘interim’ standards to approve ‘indefinite’ storage. New Mexicans didn’t sign up for this.”

Holtec says that it will store the waste below ground using an “inherently safe” method called the HI-STORM UMAX. 

“The subterranean HI-STORM UMAX storage system is so environmentally unobtrusive that all industrial activities such as fracking, drilling, and potash mining in the area can continue without obstruction,” the company states.

Holtec President and CEO Kris Singh said that it is important to have interim storage facilities to allow for nuclear power.

“The licensing of HI-STORE CISF should be viewed as the triumph of private perseverance in the service of public purpose. America knows that the interim solution of the used fuel problem, ergo HI-STORE, is critical to sustain the rise of nuclear power. We thank the nuclear-savvy communities of the Southeast New Mexico region and their visionary leaders who have welcomed us to bring our technologies to create environmentally benign and well-paying jobs, and help diversify the region’s economy thus fostering a stable industrial base,” Singh said.

In addition to the new law, there are two lawsuits pending before federal court that aim to block planned consolidated interim storage facilities, including Holtec’s proposed facility in New Mexico as well as another in Texas that received a license in 2021. The lawsuits have been pending before the courts for years.

To move the nuclear waste to the Permian Basin, where both the Texas and New Mexico facilities are licensed, it would require transporting via railroad.

“Transporting highly radioactive waste is inherently high-risk,” Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist with Beyond Nuclear, said in a press release. “Fully loaded irradiated nuclear fuel containers would be among the very heaviest loads on the roads, rails, and waterways. They would test the structural integrity of badly degraded rails, for example, risking derailments. Even if our nation’s infrastructure gets renovated someday, the shipping containers themselves will remain vulnerable to severe accidents and terrorist attacks. They could release catastrophic amounts of hazardous radioactivity, possibly in densely populated urban areas.”