Citing safety concerns, Garcia Richard challenges Holtec nuke waste site

Stephanie Garcia Richard

State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard has added her name to a growing list of state officials and industry groups opposing a plan to temporarily store high-level nuclear waste in southeastern New Mexico.

In a letter Wednesday to Holtec International President Krishna Singh, Garcia Richard said the company has misrepresented its ownership of 1,000 acres where the project would be built. The property, roughly halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs, would be used for an underground facility to store old uranium fuel rods from nuclear power plants.

Her letter also noted the location is in the middle of the Permian Basin, “one of the world’s most productive oil and gas regions.”

“Nearly 2,500 oil, gas, and mineral wells or sites are operated by 54 different businesses or entities within a 10 mile radius of the proposed site,” Garcia Richards wrote. “Locating an interim nuclear storage site above active oil, gas, and mining operations raises serious safety concerns.”

Surface ownership of the land was purchased by a group of Southern New Mexico officials known as the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance. But the minerals below ground belong to the State Land Office, Garcia Richard said, and this ownership has not been disclosed to federal regulators.

Holtec began the process of licensing the facility in 2017, seeking a 40-year permit to potentially store up to 120,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants around the nation. Holtec said it would have enough space to store all of the nation’s nuclear fuel waste 23 feet below ground.

At the time, the project was supported by former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and gained support from counties surrounding the proposed facility, in an area that also is home to the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

But environmental groups have increasingly opposed the project, saying it could have vast environmental and public health ramifications and that it is misleading to propose a temporary operation at the site when no permanent place exists for storing high-level waste. They sought to intervene and trigger a hearing earlier this year but were denied.

The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association and the Permian Basin Petroleum Association have also opposed the project, saying it could cripple their economic output in the region.

Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wrote to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, withdrawing gubernatorial support for the plan.

But Garcia Richard said the role of the State Land Office has been overlooked.

When Holtec began the licensing process in 2017, it sent letters to 60 elected and government officials, she said, but excluded the State Land Office.

“Holtec appears to have entirely disregarded the State Land Office’s authority over the site’s mineral estate,” Garcia Richard said.

An agreement between Holtec and potash mining company Intrepid Potash — prohibiting the latter from mining at the nuclear waste site — also would hold no bearing, according to Garcia Richard’s letter, because such mining activities are regulated by the state in that area.

Also, oil and gas companies have not entered into any such agreements, the letter said.

Banning companies from drilling above a certain depth, to prevent their activity from disturbing the nuclear waste site, would likely trigger a legal challenge, the letter continued. Garcia Richard said Holtec has falsely promised federal regulators that companies have agreed to abide by certain drilling restrictions.

Garcia Richard also said Holtec has yet to answer questions posed at a February meeting about how the site would impact oil and gas operations, as well as what the worst case scenario for an accident would be — and how Holtec would respond.

“I am deeply concerned about the misrepresentation Holtec made to the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission],” Garcia Richard wrote. Agreements between extractive industries and Holtec “do not exist and may very well never ever exist.”

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Rebecca Moss has covered the environment and Los Alamos National Laboratory for the Santa Fe New Mexican since j2015. In 2018, she was selected to participate in the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

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