Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is imploring President Donald Trump to side with state officials in opposing Holtec International’s plans to build an underground site that would house high-level, commercial nuclear waste in southeastern New Mexico.
“New Mexico has grave concerns for the unnecessary risk to our citizens and our communities, our first responders, our environment, and to New Mexico’s agriculture and natural resource industries,” the governor wrote in a Tuesday letter.
Lujan Grisham is allied with New Mexico’s Democratic delegates, some tribes and dozens of activist groups in opposing the storage site, which would hold as much as 173,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste, mainly from nuclear reactors.
Holtec plans to lease 1,000 acres from the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a consortium of local governments in the Carlsbad area, to build what’s planned as a temporary repository until Yucca Mountain — a proposed Nevada nuclear waste site steeped in controversy — begins operating.
John Heaton, chairman of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, dismissed the governor’s arguments as “hyperbole” rather than factual.
“It’s discouraging that the governor and those that have scientific backgrounds do not understand this and are strictly commenting only on emotional appeal,” Heaton said.
The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission is assessing whether to issue a 40-year license to Holtec for the site, Lujan Grisham wrote. The company’s plans call for expanding the site in 20 phases over 20 years until it stores as many as 10,000 canisters of spent nuclear fuel.
In the letter, Lujan Grisham asked that a similar storage facility proposed in West Texas also be scrapped.
Building high-level nuclear storage sites would be disruptive and possibly hazardous to the region’s agricultural community and the oil and gas industry, the governor said.
The agriculture industry in Lea and Eddy counties, where the facility would be built, injects $300 million a year in the state’s economy, Lujan Grisham said.
And the Permian Basin, located in that area, is the most productive oil and natural gas region in the world, the governor wrote. “Any steps toward siting such a project could cause a decrease in investment in two of our state’s biggest industries.”
For that reason, the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, and the Permian Basin Petroleum Association all have written letters to her office, opposing high-level waste storage in southeastern New Mexico, Lujan Grisham said.
But Heaton said there’s no evidence the underground canisters would affect agriculture or the oil and gas industry. The containers would be buried only about 50 feet deep, allowing drillers to go beneath the site for fuel resources, he said.
“We and the oil and gas industry are completely compatible,” Heaton said.
The governor also expressed concerns that the facility would be vulnerable to earthquakes and other natural hazards, as well as terrorism, sabotage and explosions that could occur if spent nuclear fuel rods ruptured. The canisters would deteriorate as they aged, posing risks both if they leaked and if they were unearthed for replacement, Lujan Grisham said.
“Accidents are possible and unacceptably detrimental to the safety of New Mexicans, our economy, and our state,” Lujan Grisham said.
The site would “join the ranks of uranium mining, nuclear energy and defense-related programs that have long created risks to public health and the environment,” she said, adding that transporting and storing high-level waste poses a great risk to tribal, minority and low-income populations in the area.
Heaton countered that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has estimated the chances of radioactive material escaping a canister or the storage enclosures are “a billion to one.”
And the notion that the facility could harm low-income residents is “absolutely untrue,” he argued. “It’s in the desert — it’s miles away from people.”
The governor said her fundamental concern is the facility would become the nation’s lone repository for high-level nuclear waste — and would be a permanent one.
Given that a permanent repository for high-level waste does not exist in the United States and there is no existing plan to build one, any ‘interim’ storage facility will be an indefinite storage facility, and the risks for New Mexicans, our natural resources and our economy are too high,” Lujan Grisham said.