‘Forever deadly’: State officials, communities scramble to fight a proposal to house high-level nuclear waste in New Mexico

Rose Gardner is not giving up. 

A Eunice resident, Gardner has spent the past few years fighting a proposal to store high-level nuclear waste in southeastern New Mexico. 

“I was born here in Eunice, New Mexico, and have lived through a lot of ups and downs, oil booms and busts,” Gardner told NM Political Report. “But never have I ever felt that we needed an industry as dangerous as storing high-level nuclear waste right here.”

Gardner, who co-founded the Alliance for Environmental Strategies, is part of a groundswell of opposition to a project currently under consideration by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that would see the world’s largest nuclear waste storage facility be built along the Lea-Eddy county line.  

Holtec International, a private company specializing in spent nuclear fuel storage and management, applied for a license from the NRC in 2017 to construct and operate the facility in southeastern New Mexico that would hold waste generated at nuclear utilities around the country temporarily until a permanent, federally-managed repository is established. The license application is making steady progress in the NRC’s process, despite the pandemic. 

Proponents of the project tout the estimated $3 billion in capital investments and 100 new jobs that it would bring to the area. But opponents — including the governor of New Mexico, most tribal nations in the state, state lawmakers, 12 local governments and a number of local associations — worry that the proposed interim storage facility would become a de facto permanent storage solution for the nation’s growing nuclear waste. “There’s a great concern that this waste, should it end up in New Mexico, will really never move from here,” state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, told NM Political Report.

Groups fight nuclear waste storage proposal in NM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Groups opposed to construction of a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s commercial reactors are on a tour this week to make sure people know what’s being proposed for southern New Mexico. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering a proposal from Holtec International to build and transport the waste, now stored in casks at various nuclear power plants around the country, to southern New Mexico. Don Hancock, director of the Southwest Research and Information Center’s nuclear-waste program, said New Mexico shouldn’t be the repository for 60 years’ worth of nuclear waste generated on the East Coast. “The proposal is to bring all that currently exists,” he said, “so, if this were to happen, the place where all this waste would be is in New Mexico, as opposed to now, when it’s in more than 30 other states and none in New Mexico.” The Holtec facility could store up to 100,000 tons of nuclear reactor waste for as long as 120 years, or until a permanent repository is built. The NRC’s 60-day public comment period on the site licensing application is open until May 29.