‘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.

With no permanent repository for commercial nuclear waste, NM is in the spotlight

Over the past two decades, southeastern New Mexico has embraced an industry many other communities throughout the country have rejected. Following more than 20 years of proposals, studies and battles, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) opened near Carlsbad in 1999 to store nuclear weapons waste underground. Then, in 2010, a uranium enrichment plant opened in Eunice. And boosters have floated other ideas, including a nuclear waste reprocessing plant. Most recently, a group of local politicians and businessmen invited a private company to store high-level waste from commercial nuclear power plants on a thousand acres between Carlsbad and Hobbs.

DOE settles with state for $73 million over WIPP leak (updated)

On Thursday, Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Gov. Susana Martinez announced a $73 million settlement for claims from the state in relation to a leak of radioactive materials from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in early 2014. The $73 million settlement will go towards projects in the state around Department of Energy sites, including WIPP and Los Alamos National Laboratory. In late 2014, the state announced fines of $54.3 million for hazardous waste violations by the Department of Energy. The fines came after an investigation from the New Mexico Environment Department. Earlier this year, a report stated that the state Environment Department was considering $100 million or more in additional fines.